Courtesy NIGA
Sharon House (Oneida Nation of Wisconsin) has practiced law since 1983 specializing in Indian law.

30 Years of NIGA: Tribal Gaming's Unique History and Purpose


To close out the National Indian Gaming Association's (NIGA) 30-year anniversary, a history panel came together to share the unique beginnings of Indian gaming during the NIGA Mid-Year Conference, held November 2-4 at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, Florida.

NIGA Chairman Ernie Stevens, Jr. reminded the crowd: "Many of us in Indian country have lived and worked in a world of advocacy standing up for tribal sovereignty and advocating for tribal governments rights to govern their communities. With that in mind, we come together today to learn about the importance of the history of Indian gaming and where it came from.

"This esteemed panel has worked hard all of their lives and have made many sacrifices for Indian country so that we can enjoy the benefits that Indian gaming provides for our communities today. I hope all of you know how important the message of this panel is, it will document where we have come from and will provide the lessons we need to remember as we go forward."

One panelist, attorney Sharon House, a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, started in Indian gaming early in her career. She began on a Regulatory Task Force that was made up of approximately 25 people from across Indian country, who spent two years developing minimum internal controls for the regulation and integrity of Indian gaming. Tribal leaders at the time knew it was important to ensure that gaming was regulated well, as many of the early critics were using the lack of expertise and experience in Indian country as justification to bring an end to Indian gaming. House reminisced how the Regulatory Task Force worked on behalf of all of Indian country and especially those tribes who did not have the resources to dedicate to this effort. The minimum internal controls were meant to be a guideline for tribes to use in the regulation of Indian gaming. House explained how the Regulatory Task Force decided early on to meet on reservations where the members could see the needs first hand and could interact with grassroots tribal members. This kept the Regulatory Task Force focused as to their mission, which was to serve Indian Country.

House went on and spoke of something that seemed quite simple, which was the setup of the room. When the Regulatory Task Force first began, they had classroom style set ups and soon found that it did not fit with cultural norms and the basic tenants of equality. They quickly changed the standard room set-up to a square, which made everyone equal and allowed the group to have a bigger focus.

As their work on the development of regulations ensued, tribal leaders were meeting with a great deal of political unrest. The Task Force was asked by the tribal leadership to engage in "regulatory" negotiations with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, States Attorney General representatives, State Governor's representatives and Congressional Leadership representatives. House served as a Co-Chair of this body, which was made up of tribal attorneys. They spent over a year of sitting down, educating, understanding the "real issues" and finally negotiating. House remembered that moment and shared her insight by stating, "What it came down to was the other parties asking, 'What do you want?' It was much simpler than they could understand. It wasn't to get rich. We told them we wanted sewers and indoor bathrooms like everybody else. They finally 'got it.' From that point on, the negotiations went much smoother." 

Next on the pael was Kurt Bluedog, a Native American attorney who represented theFond Du Lac Tribe in Minnesota in the early days of Indian gaming. He spoke to the legal framework that Indian gaming evolved from. In 1976 Minnesota case Bryan (Leech Lake Tribal Member) v Itasca County ruled that the state did not have authority to impose a tax on personal property of a tribal member living on trust land. The Native American Rights Fund submitted an Amicus Brief in this case. Bryan v Itasca County set the foundation for the purpose of Public Law 280, which was not a grant of civil and regulatory control but rather a grant of criminal jurisdiction. This meant that tribal governments continued to maintain the powers to civilly regulate tribal members and tribal lands within their jurisdiction. With this foundational legal precedence being set, a few tribes that had been discussing the development of their tribal economies decided to move forward with testing this same civil jurisdiction application to bingo.

In the early eighties the Seminole Tribe of Florida and Oneida Nation of Wisconsin both had legal challenges that met with the same conclusion; tribes maintained the right to civil regulatory authority on their reservations. Tribes could determine prize payouts, internal controls, licensing, procedures, how often played, etc. As a result of these determinations on bingo, tribes began discussing casino style games. In the mid to late 1980s tribes started introducing casino style games in their establishments. As a result, the Cabazon and Morongo Tribes were sued by the State of California. Attorney Glen Feldmen, argued the case for the tribes in the Supreme Court and won. Tribes had the right to regulate gaming if it was allowable in the state. In the meantime, Congress was negotiating with tribes on a "legislative compromise" should the tribes be found successful.

NIGA played a major role in these discussions and Indian Country was adamantly opposed to any compromises on sovereignty, however in the final hour, the legislation passed included the provision requiring compacts with states for the regulation of casino style (Class III) games that the tribes would operate. Tribal leaders Wendall Chino and Roger Jordain's tribes legally challenged the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act on behalf of Indian Country but they ultimately lost the challenge. Bluedog spoke of the tribal leadership of NIGA in its early beginnings in the 1980s and discussed how they provided strong direction and did not waver in the face of controversy. They stayed steady in their course to eradicate poverty and blight in Indian Country and they were successful! Bluedog stated, "It's been a great ride! The leadership was out of sight!"

The panel continued with longtime friend and advocate of Indian Gaming, Joel Frank, Jr. from the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Frank went back to the early discussions tribes had that led to Indian gaming. Tribal leaders were tired of never getting the resources promised them through treaties with the United States. They had relied on the government and their communities were in deep poverty and lacked the resources needed to provide for their people. Frank explained how little did their tribe know that they were on the verge of a renaissance, a renaissance to a vibrant, brighter future, which would come through Indian gaming.

The Seminole Chairman at the time, James Billie started asking what else they could do to create economic development beyond cigarettes and cattle. Considering bingo, the tribe went to 68 law firms who all said the tribe was not able to conduct bingo before the Seminole went ahead and selected a business partner and hired the best lawyers in the country in preparation for the legal challenges they anticipated. In the Seminole v Butterworth case, the tribe was successful in their argument that they could regulate based on the previous litigation in Bryan v Itasca. The Seminole were well aware that they were setting precedence for all of Indian Country.

With their win, the Seminole were visited by the Fond du Lac Tribe from Minnesota and their lobbyist Manny Fierro who worked under Cesar Chavez, known for grassroots organizing around labor and empowerment of civil rights. At that time there was discussion about organizing Indian Country for the protection of their sovereign right to conduct gaming and to develop regulatory standards to protect the integrity of Indian gaming. The tribes called a meeting to organize and asked each tribe to contribute five thousand dollars each to fund legal fees for an amicus brief in the Cabazon-Morongo case. Frank said, "The rest is history. Imagine what we can do when we put our mind to it."

Last, but definitely not least was NIGA Chairman Emeritus, Rick Hill. Following Frank's presentation, Hill said referring to the panel, "We have the scars to prove it! There was an onslaught of resistance from Nevada, the National Governor's Association, the National Attorney General's Association, religious groups, anti-gaming groups and Congress." It was back in the early days when Hill was on the Oneida Tribal Council they assigned Councilman Mark Powless to serve on a Bingo Task Force that was formed by Indian Country to go out to tribal communities and gather facts on regulation and operation of Indian bingo establishments. Councilman Powless would report back to the Council on his work and that is how he got involved in the Indian gaming industry.

During this same time, the Oneida Business Committee sent Councilman Hill to the Seminole Tribe for the first NIGA organizing meetings along with Chairman Purcell Powless. Hill said they met in a "hotel room," with two queen size beds. There was no money for a "meeting room" in those days. He said, "I was on the ground floor of the national movement." During this same time, longtime Chairman Purcell Powless decided to retire and a contingent approached Hill and told him they were putting him up for Chairman in Oneida. Having successfully obtained his bid as Chairman for Oneida, WI, Hill became very involved in NIGA's campaign to protect and promote Indian gaming.

With Oneida's support Hill ran for the NIGA Chairmanship and won. Hill recalled how when he asked for the records from the previous Chairman he was handed a shoebox with a lot of bills that had to be paid and little to no money to operate with. The Oneida Nation in WI, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community and Sodak Gaming each contributed money to get NIGA back in operation. At this point, the first NIGA Executive was hired. Tim Wapato housed the first NIGA office at his kitchen table with some challenging times ahead. With Wapato's legislative experience and his wife Gaye's assistance on the public relations front, an elaborate plan was developed that identified all the players, good and bad, in the Indian gaming fight and aligning influential leaders in Indian Country.

During the time of the Inouye Task Force, this plan was critical in moving Indian Country's agenda forward in a positive way. The campaign focused on the benefits of Indian gaming and as in Native American tradition, the story was told through lives of Native people that Indian gaming had a positive impact on. At one of the infamous hearings at the time, the then NIGA Executive Director, Jake Coin lined up one hundred Chiefs to testify and tell the many stories of the great difference that Indian gaming was making in the lives of Native people.

Adding to the legacy of Indian gaming was another great contributor; Dr. Kate Spilde. She provided the ammunition, the statistics and the factual data that proved the story and took care of business for those in opposition of Indian gaming. Taking the Wapato model forward, there was an all out effort to make an impact on Governor's throughout the country. Tribal leaders were teamed up to make visits and aligned with those they would have the most influence over. This effort helped our cause some, but not to the extent that Indian Country had hoped for. Chairman Emeritus said over and over, "It was the right group of souls at the right time, doing the right thing."

As confidence in NIGA and Indian gaming grew, tribes and tribal partners stepped up and funds were raised to purchase a location that housed the offices of the association in a prominent and prestigious area of Capitol Hill. Hill said, "No negative legislation ever made it through on our watch. The wars continue today and we have to help each other out. We have to build our Nations and eliminate the economic racism that my mentor, Tim Wapato spoke of."

These respected panel speakers will be the first to tell anyone that there are and were so many great men and women warriors that helped work our way through and build this distinguished organization that we call the National Indian Gaming Association. NIGA Chairman Stevens recalls his first involvement in Indian gaming as a young Councilman as well. "I was able to work beside many of these prominent leaders, learning of the significance of having a presence in Washington, D.C. and the importance of having a strong membership in the organization. They empowered me and gave me advice as their understudy.  I was able to listen, observe and learn from their example of leadership. I will always be grateful for this opportunity!"

We cannot appreciate where we are going without these recounts of NIGA's history from the 'Tribal Gaming Has a Unique History and Purpose panel.' Although Indian gaming had many struggles in its beginnings, it is a successful and vibrant segment of the overall gaming industry today. We have strong leaders, like these panelists and their many colleagues, to thank for the survival of the "best economic development tool to ever be introduced in Indian Country." Tribal gaming is a unique business in that we utilize the dollars generated to provide essential governmental services such as housing, education, healthcare, social services and beyond. These Indian gaming pioneers exemplify modern day warriors for their role in the protection of Indian gaming and their advocacy for tribal sovereignty.

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