The success of Indian gaming and its sky-high revenues have landed Indian Country squarely in the nation's capital along with a chorus of strong tribal voices backed by powerful advocacy groups with substantial lobbying power. Until recently, however, the voices were not always so loud, and for some time, not too long ago, they were often ignored.

The steps of the U.S. Capitol building

NIGA Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr.

It’s hard to imagine Washington, D.C., without the presence of Native people. The success of Indian gaming and its sky-high revenues ($26 billion in 2008) have landed Indian Country squarely in the capital along with a chorus of strong tribal voices backed by powerful advocacy groups with substantial lobbying power. Until recently, however, the voices were not always so loud, and for some time, not too long ago, they were often ignored.

In 1985, two years before the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was passed, but several years after landmark court cases involving tribes’ rights to game were won, several tribal leaders formed a group called the National Indian Gaming Association. These tribal leaders met semiannually to discuss Indian gaming issues and to follow any anti-gaming court cases or sentiment at both the state and federal levels. The organization was a loose-knit band of members without offices or staff. No one even paid annual dues.

The handsome offices that house NIGA today in the heart of the nation’s capital may be far grander than the humble meeting rooms of 25 years ago, but the association’s goal remains the same. “We are about Indian people helping Indian people and tribes helping tribes,” says NIGA Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr., a member of the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin, who is currently serving his fourth term. “We work together to help the economic situation for Indian people and to protect our sovereign rights as Indian Nations.”

As the success of Indian gaming grew with the passage of IGRA in1988, gaming tribes wanted and needed a strong lobbying group in Washington. They also needed a leader to take the organization to the next level. Enter the late Tim Wapato of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in Washington state, who served from 1993 to 1998 as NIGA’s first executive director. A lifelong protector of tribal sovereignty, Wapato and his wife, Gay Kingman-Wapato of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, who served as NIGA’s first director of public relations, and Rick Hill of the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin, who served as chairman, worked night and day out of the Wapato apartment in Washington, D.C., to turn the National Indian Gaming Association into a power for its members.

In those early years, with meager resources, Wapato, Kingman and Hill fought the opponents of Indian gaming and educated the public and government officials about the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, tribal sovereignty and about the positive impact of gaming on Indian Country.

 “Our dear friend, the late Tim Wapato, and his wife, Gay, along with Rick Hill created what we are today,” says Stevens. “They didn’t have a lot when they started out, they practically ran NIGA out of the car, and today we’re on Capitol Hill thanks to their efforts. Tim was a real warrior of the people.”

Last September at NIGA’s annual mid-year conference, Kingman, who lost her husband last April, was honored with a Lifetime Achievement award. In her acceptance speech, Kingman acknowledged the unique creation of NIGA: “There is something special to say about NIGA. It was born out of nothing. And it is where it is today because of those that have gone on, like my husband, Tim Wapato, and John Kieffer [a member of the Spokane Tribe, who served on NIGA’s Executive Committee]. I am glad that Chairman Stevens, [Executive Director] Mark Van Norman and the NIGA Executive Board have continued to work hard and take NIGA upwards and forward to one of the most powerful Indian organizations.”

Seminole Hard Rock hotel-casino in Hollywood, Fla.


NIGA today is a multifaceted resource offering itself as an educational, legislative and public policy resource for tribes, policymakers and the public. In the last 25 years, the association has created an immense and powerful presence for Native peoples in Washington.

While the big names - the Seminoles and Mohegans, for example - are attached to billions of dollars in casino revenues, to date, only 226 out of the 561 federally recognized Indian tribes are involved in gaming, and few are hugely successful in their operations. But from the smallest bingo hall to the grandest casino and resort, most gaming tribes want to be in control of their own tribal businesses, and they turn to NIGA for help.

Says Stevens, “In the beginning there were a lot of great leaders who did a whole lot with very little. It wasn’t always easy for Indian people to be heard. There was a time when tribes with available resources would come to Washington and they would have to carry the water for a lot of tribes. Today, we have a group, a consortium of elected tribal leaders, who in my opinion are the best lobbyists coming to Washington on a regular basis. If there is an issue that will affect Indian Country we’re here to voice our opinion.”

Not only is NIGA recognized as one of the most effective advocacy groups in Washington, the association also works alongside the National Congress of American Indians and other tribal organizations.

“We put our heart and soul into doing what we do,” says Stevens. “We work to protect Indian sovereignty.”

NIGA, whose Native and non-Native staff are experts in the fields of law, public policy and governmental affairs, work closely with local, state, federal and tribal governments to create and support policies, fair practices and provide both technical assistance and advocacy on Indian gaming issues.

“We have outside, non-Native experts who work for us and we are happy with what they do,” says Stevens, “but it gives me special pleasure to know that [Native people] are the experts now in our field. Native people are becoming and have become the experts in the gaming industry, from law to technical fields, business and advocacy.”

Mohegan Sun Casino of the Wind


The rapid ascent of Indian gaming in the United States began with bingo, which was played on a handful of reservations in the 1970s. As the games gained in popularity and economy with high-stakes pots, often to raise funds for much-needed tribal services, the states took an avid interest in what the tribes were doing and tried to regulate or shut down the operations. In 1975-76, two landmark cases were brought simultaneously before the federal courts - Oneida Tribe v. New York State, and Seminole Tribe v. the State of Florida. Both tribes argued that as sovereign nations their bingo games were not illegal within their jurisdictions and so their games could not be regulated or shut down by the states.

“You know, when we were selling arts and crafts and trinkets by the side of the road, nobody cared,” says Max Osceola, a Seminole tribal council member. “But when we started doing bingo and gaming and the money came in, then everybody wanted to tell us what to do.”

Osceola recalls that his tribe won at every level, until finally the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states did not have any regulatory control over gaming on reservations.

“It all started with a bingo hall,” he says. “When we won our case, it proved gaming could be done elsewhere in Indian Country, and it spread. So for nearly 10 years, gaming flourished. But the federal government and the states saw the income coming into tribes from gaming, and suddenly they wanted to tell us what to do.”

There followed another landmark Supreme Court case, Cabazon v. State of California, which said that tribes could not be prevented from operating any games of chance that were legal elsewhere in their respective states. This prompted Congress in 1988 to pass the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which stated that tribal gaming revenues must be used for no purpose but to fund tribal government programs and required tribes and states to negotiate on the types of games, their regulation and how revenues are used, and required that to operate house-banked casino style games, defined as Class III games by IGRA, tribes and states must negotiate compacts.

 Not all tribal leaders supported IGRA.

“In my opinion, it’s a racist law,” says Osceola. “My question at the time was, ‘Is there a Non-Indian Gaming Act?’ … There were tribes here before the states, and we can regulate our own activities. The law infringes on the tribes’ sovereignty because we have to negotiate compacts with the states. We’re sovereign nations and we should have that right.”

The Seminole Tribe knows firsthand how difficult those negotiations can be. They’ve been embroiled in trying to negotiate a compact with the state of Florida since 1991.

“The legislature is in session now, so we hope we will get approval,” says Osceola. “If we don’t, we will probably go to the [U.S. Department of Interior] and get procedures. I do believe we’ll negotiate a compact this year because right now there is probably $230 million in escrow for the state. At the end of the fiscal year, that number will be close to $450 million.”

Like the few truly financially successful gaming tribes, which today are worth millions if not billions of dollars, it is remarkable to think that a few decades ago the Seminole people, whose tribe kick-started Indian gaming for Indian Country, were once struggling to survive with poor services and government commodities on its reservations.

 “When we bought the Hard Rock, a reporter asked me what I wanted to do now that I was rich,” says Osceola. “I told him, ‘I’ve always been rich, I just didn’t have any money.’ I was rich and am rich in what is important: culture and family. Money changes convenience, it doesn’t change character.”

Ernie Stevens and Congressman Tom Cole, R-Okla.


Besides being an advocate for Indian Gaming, NIGA is also in the business of education; offering annual workshops, courses and technical training to help educate tribal members, state officials and Indian casino employees on a wide range of topics, from gaming law to issues of sovereignty and tribal government.

“Educating people and politicians on local, state and federal levels about tribal sovereignty is an important part of our job at NIGA,” says Stevens.

Indian gaming tribes have made their presence known in Washington, and NIGA provides them with the necessary support to get their agendas in front of lawmakers.

U.S. Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) applauds NIGA for its efforts.

“We work hand in glove with NIGA up here in Washington,” says the congressman, who is an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation. “If you have questions about Indian gaming, NIGA is going to work with you to answer those questions, and they can explain, clearly, why [Indian gaming] arguably has been the most successful economic development program for Indian nations in the history of the country.”

Osceola, needless to say, agrees. “There is strength in numbers, and the gaming tribes really have a strong voice in NIGA. It is a positive organization and something we all need to have behind us.”

There are 184 Indian nations affiliated with NIGA to date, along with hundreds of non-voting associate members representing tribes, organizations and businesses involved in tribal gaming enterprises across the United States.

 “Our efforts have helped train Native young people to become today’s experts in law, business and tribal culture,” says Stevens. “We are able to become our own advocates in Washington because we are now the experts in the field. Indian Country has a real presence in Washington.”

Currently, the organization is focusing efforts on its upcoming April trade show and conference in San Diego. The annual event is renowned for bringing together more than 200 tribal governments that run more than 400 gaming facilities and is an important platform for the vital work of education.

“We will be discussing the IRS and taxation concerns for tribes, and tribal financing, which is very important given the state of the economy,” says Stevens. “You can be sure Internet gaming is on everyone’s minds, and tribal leaders are discussing that issue. We will also talk about cultural preservation, green energy and the effects of climate change.”

Stevens is very vocal about the importance of preserving natural resources and protecting the environment, not only for Indian Country but nationwide. He believes that one way tribes will diversify their businesses in the future, besides gaming, will be in green energy, something that tribes are already involved in.

“We need to educate not just Indian Country but America about the effects of climate change and the importance of green energy,” he says.

While Stevens is in San Diego he plans to visit nearby reservations. While his itinerary is not finalized, he may visit the Viejas Casino, owned by the Viejas Band of the Kumeyaay Indians, whose chairman, Bobby Barrett, will be attending this year’s conference.

Barrett says, “I think it is critical for tribes to join together in associations like NIGA to leverage our individual strengths and create a greater impact for the common good of all tribes.”

He believes strongly that his tribe has benefited from its membership in NIGA.

“It has helped us promote and improve opportunities for our tribal members - economically, socially and politically. NIGA has provided Viejas with an opportunity to share information and resources with other tribes on a national level and provides a platform for our tribe to reach out to other tribes that may share our philosophy and commitment to tribal economic development, social justice and self-sufficiency.”

After the trade show, NIGA will turn its attention to preparing for the summer session of its annual Legislative Summit, which provides an opportunity for tribal leaders to come to Washington and work with NIGA on the issues affecting Indian Country.

“Tribal leaders come to Washington to network and work together, in the heat of the summer, mind you, to work for the good of their tribal members and all Native people,” says Stevens. “Of course that largely means gaming, but in many instances tribes don’t have the economic opportunities to game, so we have to either increase their rights to have gaming on their reservations or we have to help them find other kinds of economic development.

He adds, “We still have a long way to go, but things have changed for the good in 25 years. The presence of Indian Country is stronger than ever.”