To create, preserve, and protect: 35 years of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act

Oklahoma tribal casino
Image: Shutterstock / Kit Leong

This week we celebrate the 35th anniversary of the passing of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA). Since then, tribal gaming has flourished not just as an industry but as a tool to help tribal nations across the country flourish. National Indian Gaming Commission Vice Chair Jeannie Hovland reflects on the progress in this op-ed.

Hovland (Flandreau Santee Sioux) is Vice-Chair of the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC). As such, she is responsible for regulating and ensuring the integrity of the more than 500 Indian gaming facilities, associated with over 250 tribes across 29 states. She served as the OSR Director from May 2021 through July 2023. Hovland began her three-year term at the agency on Jan. 17, 2021, after being appointed by the Secretary of the Interior. You can read more about Hovland here.

In October, we celebrate 35 years of the passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA). This law provides a statutory basis for the operation of gaming by Indian tribes as a means of promoting tribal economic development, self-sufficiency, and strong tribal governments; it also created our agency, the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC), for the federal regulation of class II gaming on Indian Lands. Currently, our agency regulates over 500 tribal gaming operations made up of 244 tribes across 29 states. In July Chairman Sequoyah Simermeyer and I announced fiscal year 2022 gross gaming revenue of $40.9 billion, which is a new record high, and continues a nearly 20-year run of year-over-year revenue increases.

In my travels to tribal communities from coast to coast and many places in between, I’m often asked why tribal gaming remains in an upward trajectory. As I have thought about this question, I believe there are several factors, but what always comes to mind is that many of our tribes have been in the tribal gaming industry for decades. Tribes have become experts at tribal gaming, leading in quality marketing, adapting to changing trends, updating technology, adjusting to consumer demands, and safe and well-regulated gaming operations. This expertise directly and meaningfully drives growth for many tribes and their communities, and I’ve seen firsthand the positive impacts of tribal gaming on Indigenous communities in creating economic development, preserving resources, and protecting our traditions and way of life.

Creating economic and workforce development

Tribal Gaming provides local sustainable jobs and high-level careers and often is the main employer in the community and surrounding communities. I’ve witnessed tribes using gaming revenues to invest in diverse economic ventures creating local shopping, entertainment, and dining options allowing for the dollar to be turned over in their tribal community rather than going to the surrounding communities. This provides additional jobs and an increase of consumers for tribally owned businesses, encouraging more tribal entrepreneurs.

Similarly, I have seen how tourism has been directly impacted by tribal gaming. Some tribes have built family destination vacation spots connected to their gaming operations while others have been able to use gaming revenues to create tribal tourism experiences that educate visitors about who we, as Indigenous people, are and provide a market for local artists, jewelry makers, basket weavers, and other cultural crafts. Overall, gaming has provided a larger landscape and continues to be a big part of successful tourism in tribal communities. For example, in 2010 the Chickasaw Nation launched their tribal tourism program, Chickasaw Country, as a primary means to market their region as a premier rural destination to experience authentic Native American culture through natural exploration, outdoor recreation, entertainment, and hospitality.

Preserving ecosystems and resources

In my travels and visits with Tribal leaders and communities, I have witnessed tribal programs supported through gaming revenues that have allowed communities to reestablish homegrown Indigenous foods through food sovereignty programs, bringing back healthy foods that are vital to help prevent diabetes and cardiovascular disease. In furthering our connections to the land and the inherent responsibility of stewardship on our lands, gaming revenues have been used to restore ecosystems through the reintroduction of our land, air, and water relatives. Many were once endangered and near extinction and are now returning and thriving in their natural habitat and homelands such as bison, salmon, alligators, and raptors to name a few.

The Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida (MTIF) features a Miccosukee Environmental Protection Agency (MEPA) supported through their tribal gaming revenues. MEPA is comprised of three departments, Water Resources, Land Resources, and Fish & Wildlife, and includes the Tribal Historic Preservation Office. Part of the many responsibilities of the MEPA department is to manage, evaluate, and execute the long-term water quality monitoring program across Tribal Lands and impacts within greater Everglades regional watersheds. Through MEPA, the Miccosukee Tribe continues to be protectors of the Indigenous plants, animals, and landscape of their homelands.

Protecting life and communities

Tribal gaming revenues have been instrumental in supplementing and sustaining many tribal law and order and community-driven health and safety programs, like those supporting prevention, intervention and culturally appropriate programs for victims, survivors, families, and communities of human trafficking or a missing or murdered Indigenous relative. The Cheyenne and Arapaho Missing and Murdered Indigenous People (MMIP) Chapter is an advocacy, education, and awareness organization serving the Cheyenne Arapaho Territory in northwest and central Oklahoma. This grassroots chapter, supported solely through tribal gaming revenues, was created over three years ago to help bring awareness about MMIP and
to provide advocacy for state and federal action and resources. In 2021, the state of Oklahoma passed Ida’s Law, in honor of Ida Beard, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, who went missing in 2015 and tragically has never been located.

Further, the Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi (PBP) has developed human trafficking education and response initiatives, supported through casino revenues and the gaming commission budget, for employees at both of their casino operations. In addition, their gaming revenues also support the PBP Tribal Police Department. Beginning in 2021, the Pokagon Band Gaming Commission (PBGC) recognized the increasing threat of human trafficking criminal organizations across the Country and the potential adverse impact on their communities and casino properties. In response, PBGC partnered with their tribal gaming operations management and developed a comprehensive Human Trafficking Awareness presentation for casino employees and the training was also attended by the Pokagon Band Tribal Police Department. The PBGC leveraged human trafficking awareness resources available from the NIGC, the Department of Homeland Security Blue Campaign, and local human trafficking service organizations to compose an interactive Human Trafficking Digital Toolkit available to Casino personnel 24/7 through the casino’s human resources intranet page.

I thank the tribal leaders for advocating for the federal and state action we are now seeing to address human trafficking of our peoples and for our missing and murdered Indigenous relatives. And I especially thank our grassroots organizations, families, and survivors who never gave up on seeking answers and demanding that more be done.

The next seven generations

In summarizing the impacts of Tribal gaming I’ve seen and answering the questions of its lasting impact, my answer is simple. In short, gaming revenues have helped to preserve the ways of the last seven generations and allowed tribes to plan for the next seven generations. An elder from the Miccosukee tribe said to me, “It’s not about gaming rights, it’s about life rights.” I could not have stated it any better and these words always resonate with me. I also want to acknowledge the work of the NIGC Team. We are a small agency but with a big mission. I am grateful to work for a team so dedicated to the success and safety of Indian gaming.

Gaming revenues have improved the quality of life for many who now have access to quality health care, clean water, renewable energy resources, higher education opportunities, and much-needed social and welfare programs to help alleviate financial hardships of their community members, like in the Coquille Indian Tribe of Oregon. Funded through gaming revenues, the Tribe offers two health and wellness centers, to promote a holistic approach to healing, and includes primary medical care, dental, pharmacy, behavioral health, and community services. But the true impact of the Ko-Kwel Wellness Centers, and indeed tribal gaming, extends outward. Gaming revenue makes it possible not only to serve local Coquille tribal members, but also members who live away from their tribal community, other American Indians and Alaska Natives, tribal employees, and the general public. Perhaps this too is the legacy of tribal gaming, one which has the promise to sustain and grow communities for years to come.

As Vice Chair, I have had the great honor to meet with tribal leaders, tour tribal gaming facilities, and visit tribal communities from the Pacific Northwest to the Atlantic East Coast, down south to Florida and North to Michigan and Wisconsin – and across the Plains. I’m encouraged by how nations have worked hard to ensure their gaming operations meet IGRA’s goals outlined by Congress in 1988, and I look forward to seeing the continued success and positive impacts of Indian Gaming over the next 35 years.