Courtesy NIGC
Jonodev Chaudhuri, Acting Chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission

New NIGC Acting Chair on His Work, IGRA, Bay Mills and More

Gale Courey Toensing

Jonodev Osceola Chaudhuri, a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, was appointed by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on September 4, 2013, to serve a three-year term as Associate Commissioner of the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) and designated as Acting Chairman on October 28.

Chaudhuri has extensive policy, legal, and judicial experience as a lawyer, tribal nations judge, community organizer, adjunct professor, and author. Before coming to the NIGC, Chaudhuri served as Senior Counselor to the Interior Department Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn, providing guidance and assistance on a wide range of national policy issues, including Indian gaming, economic development, energy, Alaska affairs, and tribal recognition. More information about him is available here.

Does your new job feel like a natural progression at this point in your career?

I’ve always seen my professional life as an extension of my personal life. My interest in Native policy stems from a long-standing family commitment to doing whatever we can do to benefit our fellow Native people. My father, who is retired, was a political science professor who taught and worked in Indian policy, and my mother was very active in Native affairs throughout her entire life. So I always carry my family’s legacy with me in whatever I do and certainly I hope to carry those values into this current position at NIGC. I think the diverse positions in my career have all carried a common theme—whenever there’s an opportunity to help the community you have an obligation to step up to the plate. This job is a natural extension of the work I’ve done in the past—policy, relationship building, understanding of tribes—those are things I’m very comfortable with, so when I was asked to step up to the plate, I was honored and humbled to say yes.

Was there any hesitancy in leaving the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs' (ASIA) office? Did Washburn want you to stay?

I believe so! One of the benefits of my experience with Indian affairs at Interior is the relationships that have developed. I value and am honored to have relationships not only with my immediate colleagues in the Assistant Secretary’s office but within the department as a whole. We had a great team at ASIA, and I’ll miss dealing with the broad issues there, but this [NIGC job] really is an opportunity to do work on the ground and hone in on a specific issue that I think dramatically impacts and improves people’s lives.

What is the most challenging work ahead of you at NIGC?

My primary goal is to continue the positive steps taken by the commission toward consultation and relationship building with tribes and tribal regulators. We deal with an ever-changing landscape of issues, and the challenge is ensuring a continuing consistent trajectory given the changing issues we face on a daily basis. My emphasis will be on continuing to listen to Indian country and doing whatever we can as a commission to provide the tools necessary to help tribes be the primary regulators of Indian gaming and to help them ensure compliance with the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA). We have an initiative that’s been in place that [former] Chairwoman Tracie Stevens developed that I feel very comfortable continuing. It’s called ACE—assistance, compliance and enforcement. Sometimes enforcement issues do come up and we understand our oversight role at the commission, but we are of the philosophy that the more collaboration and communication and assistance there is on the front end, the fewer enforcement issues there will be on the back end.

Most Indian leaders say that IGRA was a compromise of Indian nations’ sovereign right to conduct gaming on their lands. How do you respond to that claim?

I don’t think that’s an inaccurate statement. The point I always make is Indian gaming existed before IGRA. IGRA was an attempt to balance things among the tribes, the federal government and the states, and it created a regulatory framework designed in theory to balance those interests. It was a compromise created by Congress after quite a bit of deliberation and input from a variety of stakeholders, and as a commission our duty is to implement the requirements of IGRA.

In Re-creating the Circle: The Renewal of American Indian Self-Determination—an anthology of writings by Native activists, professionals and scholars—you and your co-authors said among other things that you “seek to assist not only in establishing American Indian nations as full partners in American federalism and society, but also in improving the conditions of Indigenous people worldwide, while illuminating the relevance of American Indian tradition for the contemporary world facing an abundance of increasing difficulties.” Can you talk about that book?

One of the major themes of that book is understanding the wisdom and traditional political systems of the Native communities and using that as a source of information moving forward. When we talk about the role of tribes within American federalism, we’re talking about government to government relationships, the need to respect tribal governments and tribal political systems, and I think that is 100 percent consistent with our efforts toward dialogue and consultation at the commission and with the efforts the administration has made toward consultation and government-to-government relationships for the past several years. Native communities have a lot to offer the world in terms of political structures. They contributed quite a bit to the political structure of this United States and other nations as well. During the Tribal Nation Conference the President referred to the Iroquois Confederacy’s impact on the political structure of the United States. As an extension of that, I appreciate the historical role of tribal governments in protecting and preserving what is important to us as Native people. In order to preserve who you are as a people you need the ability to use local knowledge and wisdom to help determine the fate of your community.

Finally, the question that tribal leaders all over Indian country want to know: Will NIGC jump in with an 11th hour rescue of tribal sovereignty in the Bay Mills case?

[Michigan v. Bay Mills Community is a potentially tribal sovereignty-eroding case in which the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether a state can challenge a tribe’s right to open a casino. Oral arguments take place December 2.] 

I’m not in a position to speak on a matter that’s the subject of ongoing litigation. However, I can tell you that my first order of business as acting chairman was to convene a team, largely comprised of our attorneys, to look at all possible options on all the important issues before the commission. And I do want to say the team represents decades of experience and quite a bit of specialized expertise in this field, and we took an exhaustive look at the issues with respect to all matters, and the team helped paint a picture of previous decisions by the commission and options for moving forward. I want to make the point that although it’s been characterized a certain way by certain folks in the community, the commission as a whole, the staff and in my role as acting chair, we’ve all taken an active look at the issues.  All I can say about the litigation itself is that the commission has acted on that issue in the past, the matter has been referred to the Department of Justice and to the state, and most recently the commission worked in coordination with federal partners to submit an amicus brief supporting sovereign immunity. 

If the Supreme Court comes down against tribal sovereignty, would there be any possible follow up to mitigate that ruling?

As someone who cares a great deal about tribal sovereignty—again without speaking about that case in particular—I would gladly do whatever I could to take steps to protect sovereignty in a manner consistent with our agency mission.