Ernie Stevens has seen a lot during his eight years as chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association. What is he most proud of?

NIGA Chairman Ernie Stevens stands outside the U.S. Capitol Building. During eight years at the helm of the National Indian Gaming Association, Stevens has championed sovereignty and economic development among other tribal causes.

During his eight years as chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association, Ernie Stevens Jr. has seen Indian tribes battle potential amendments to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, come to the aid of victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina, watched as the U.S. economy climbed to new heights (and then capsize), sent his five children to college and agonized as his waistline expanded a bit.
But he’s most proud of the great strides tribes have made in the development of their economies and the services they’ve been able to provide to their people.

“We’ve seen change in our communities,” he said. “We’ve seen our tribes bring vital services to our people, like police, hospitals, housing and elderly care. All of these things I’ve seen, I’ve observed, I’ve been a part of, I’ve benefitted from. These services continue to get better in our communities.

“We’ve seen advances. We’ve seen good things happen. But at the same time, I think we continue to see challenges that remain the same over the years. I continue to operate at the direction of the tribal leaders and carry out the hard work of protecting sovereignty.”

Stevens was elected chairman of NIGA in 2001 after having served six years as an officer of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), and during a recent one-hour telephone interview from his hotel in Washington, D.C., where he was addressing the NCAI Executive Council Winter Session, he examined his long career as a national leader in American Indian affairs.

“I told a little story to the tribal leaders at the NCAI general assembly today,” he said, “and what I told them was that when my father came to help me start my career in national politics, he made me promise that I would listen to the voice of the leadership, that I would look to a consortium of the leadership for opinions and encouragement.

“He made me promise that I would work hard day and night and not take for granted my responsibility, that when it was time to work, it was time to work,” he continued. “There would be other times for enjoyment and socializing, but when you’re traveling and working for the tribes and on the tribes’ budgets, as an elected officer, you have to work hard and take it seriously and help every person you possibly can.

“I think that’s the energy that helps me to work continuously and hard to support the tribes.”

Economic strides

Looking back, Stevens said he takes great pride in the remarkable economic strides tribes have made, thanks to the development of gaming operations on ancestral lands.

“In my eight years of working at NIGA, I’m most proud of the economic growth of our tribal operations and the fact that we’ve grown in a responsible manner and that our regulatory systems are some of the most comprehensive and effective,” he said. “We’ve promoted that through our work. The tribes’ advancement in providing the essential government services to their communities is something that I am very proud of.”

More importantly even than that, however, is how gaming revenues “have helped our young people in our tribes through community centers and schools and jobs. That’s really what gaming is about: governmental support so we can provide some of these necessities to our communities. To be a part of that and standing strong really makes me proud.”

In his own life, as a member of the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin, owner-operators of the highly successful Oneida Casino outside Green Bay, Stevens said his own family has been a beneficiary of the economic boom generated by gaming dollars.

“I just moved my 98-year-old grandmother into an apartment facility that may not even be there if it wasn’t for gaming,” Stevens said. “Those are the real, true benefits of tribal gaming, and what they do for a community makes me very proud. My brand new granddaughter, born on Christmas day, and my grandmother, who will turn 99 in June, are all beneficiaries of gaming.”

But the journey from destitution to prosperity has not always been an easy one for the Oneida, nor has it been for most gaming tribes. Indeed, most Indian peoples still live in abject poverty, despite the 20-year boom in reservation casinos and bingo halls.

“There are a lot of challenges out there,” he said. “The biggest challenge that we have is staying patient and dedicated and at the same time being determined to do everything we possibly can to defend our rights as tribal governments.

“It’s tough,” he added, “when we know what we’re doing and we know our rights have existed long before there was even a United States Constitution. There were Indian people – tribal governments – engaging in economic development since long before there was a United States Constitution.

“We know that, and we know our rights and how important it is to defend those rights. At the same time it’s a challenge to be patient when you know what you’re doing is appropriate and you know what you’re doing is good for your communities.”

As NIGA chairman, he would like to see more successful gaming tribes expand their own economic bases and assist those who may be located in geographic areas that are less conducive to casino or bingo development.

“The challenge that I have, and continue to be frustrated with, is an inability to get our tribes involved in economic development beyond gaming,” he said. “That and tribes working with tribes who have a lesser market or less possibility for economic development through gaming.

“That’s why we put together the American Indian Business Network, to try to get folks to work together to help one another,” he added. “One good example in the works right now we’ve seen is the Apache in Arizona helping several tribes attain financing to either start a casino or expand their operations. So there are some out there that are helping, but nowhere to the extent to what we want and need.

“As long as I’m walking this earth, I’m going to continue to push for these kinds of economic opportunities.”

The current economic downturn has clearly had an impact on tribal casinos, many of which have posted year-over-year declines in revenues, but more urgent to Stevens is the fact that so many tribal peoples are still living below the poverty line.

“The thing that hasn’t changed is that there are a lot of tribes who still don’t have the basic economic support they need,” he said. “There are a lot of tribes who, before the current economic challenges that face this country, didn’t have anything. Those folks continue to be on the outside looking in, economically.”

Perhaps ironically, the current economic crunch facing the wider U.S. population is nothing new to tribal peoples, Stevens said: “Something I’ve been saying all along is, when it comes to economic challenges, these are things that have been part of Native American society forever.

“That’s not new to us. To that extent I say to America, ‘Welcome to our world.’”       

A new hope

But with a new administration in Washington, D.C., Stevens said there is a new sense of hope among Native Americans, many of whom contributed generously to the campaign of then-candidate Barack Obama.

“I’m very excited about the Obama administration for a lot of reasons,” he said. “They have brought a fresh energy to Washington. They have pledged to work on a bipartisan basis, across the board, to help America out of this economic challenge we have.

“Indian Country has said to the president and our new government that we are prepared to step up to the plate,” Stevens continued. “Indian Country is prepared to do everything we can to help not just Indian Country out of this economic challenge but to help all of America get on its feet. That’s something we’re very excited to do.

“The new president has come out to Indian Country, has visited us in Indian Country and extended his hand in appreciation and understanding and is willing to work with us and try to understand our challenges and appreciate where we come from and what we’re all about. That itself is a great thing.”

He cautioned tribal leaders, however, that improvements will not come to the lives of the average Native American without hard work and cooperation among tribes.

“I told tribal leaders at this conference that just because there’s a fresh buzz and energy, that doesn’t mean change is going to happen,” he said. “Change is only going to happen if we work hard and do everything we can to make a difference.

“I continue to put the responsibility to make change on the shoulders of Native American people throughout this country. We can’t wait for change. We can use the positive energy and strong commitment by this president and his administration, but it’s us – Indian Country – that are going to have to do our share to make a difference.”

To that extent, he said, NIGA will advocate for cabinet-level meetings to establish government-to-government relationships between the executive branch and tribal entities.

“That is a key component for us, a true government-to-government dialogue with the tribes,” he said. “We’re hoping that the president will establish a new executive order about the tribal consultation process.”

He’s less pleased about a recent decision that came down from the judiciary.

In an 8-to-1 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court in February found that the U.S. Department of Interior cannot place land in trust for tribes not under federal jurisdiction when Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934. In the decades since the establishment of that act, many tribes – including the Narragansetts of Rhode Island, which brought the case before the court – gained federal recognition and pursued gaming compacts with state governments.

Those tribes would not be eligible to take land into trust for the purpose of gaming under the decision, a victory for state governments trying to block the Narragansetts and other more recently recognized tribes from taking land into trust and establishing casinos.

“There’s a significant need for the tribes to go back to Congress to vigorously pursue a congressional fix to this decision,” Stevens said. “We’re very disappointed and obviously think this decision is unfortunate.”

But, overall, Stevens is optimistic about the future, and about the positive changes he’s seen occur in Indian Country.

“Today I’m here in Washington, and there are Indians all over the place,” he said. “It used to be we’d show up, and we’d all be cramped up in one room. Today it’s just amazing, and tremendous, that all these Indian folks are working hard to protect their rights and find support for their communities.

“And one of the things that are special to me is that the young people have emerged as a recognizable leadership energy in Indian Country. That’s something I pushed for, I’ve strived for, I’ve hoped for, and to see it is tremendous.”