Oklahoma Indian gaming has its share of success stories and Chickasaw Nation is certainly among the most noteworthy.

An operator of more than 20 gaming locations and close to 19,000 gaming machines, led by the mammoth WinStar World Casino and Resort, Chickasaw has been on the map as a leading casino operator for years. Less well known to many in the industry, outside Oklahoma at least, is what the Chickasaws have been able to build as a Nation as its gaming business has grown.

Speaking at GameON 2017 – AGS Customer Summit, Bill Lance, director and secretary of commerce, Chickasaw Nation, presented the full sweep of Chickasaw history, starting with its 1830s trek from northern Mississippi to what was then known as Indian Territory.

“The Chickasaw Nation removal story actually occurred over a 50-year period from start-to-finish,” said Lance. “A majority of tribal citizens were moved over a 15-year period. A lot of times when people hear the story of the Trail of Tears, they think it’s over a short period of time. Actually, it was an extended period of time. At removal, our tribal members decided, ‘All or nothing. We’re leaving our homelands to enter into Indian Territory.’ I think it’s a pretty profound story. The people of that generation were galvanized and wanted to stay together; it’s a great historical fact.”

With a total population of 49,000, the Chickasaws are both substantial in number and in terms of its institutions. The Nation has a constitutional structure, with executive, legislative and judicial branches. Their present Governor, Bill Anoatubby, was elected in 1987 at the age of 42. There are eight executive departments: Commerce, Community Services, Culture and Humanities, Communications, a Health Department with an annual operating budget of over $250 million, Interior Services (includes Administrative and HR), Treasury and Youth and Family.

By any standard, The Chicaksaws’ commitment to investing in its people and building a diversified economy is exemplary.

“Our primary job is to enhance the overall quality of life for the Chickasaw people,” said Lance. “It’s important that we produce the revenue to fund our programs and services for our people. That’s a high calling, whether it be health care or education. One thing I will say is Governor Anoatubby’s Administration is very much opposed to per capita payments. Our tribe believes in trying to help our tribal members through a hand-up, and not necessarily a hand-out.”

In 1997, the Nation’s Department of Commerce had 300 employees; now it’s 7,000. More than one in five Chickasaw Nation employees are also Chickasaw citizens. To give you an idea of the diverse business portfolio of the Chickasaw Nation, in addition to casino gaming it owns horse tracks, it’s in social gaming, the Nation has five radio stations, convenience stores, tobacco shops, hotels, restaurants, commercial and real estate development investments, medical and biotech healthcare investments, it owns manufacturing companies and it has its own telecommunications company. It competes for government contracts through its Chickasaw Nation Industries arm. Being in Oklahoma, the Nation is not surprisingly in the energy business; it has mineral investments and is very much aligned with the energy sector there. Financial services is a big revenue source as well. The Nation recently formed its own community development endeavor, applied to receive new market tax credits and its first application received a $25 million allocation. It’s hoping to receive $75 million in new market tax credits with its next application.

The 370,000-square-foot Chickasaw Medical Center, a $150 million investment, provides health care for all American Indians that are located in south central Oklahoma, not just the Chickasaw Nation. “There was a business component to this: we competed for a joint venture grant through IHS (Indian Health Services) and our project won,” said Lance. The Nation received an additional $25 million per year in federal funding for staffing and operational support for this facility. 

There is a lot more to this story than space allows, but the snapshot offered here might be best completed with another of the Chickasaws’ good works: The American Indian Cultural Center and Museum in Oklahoma City. “It was started 25 years ago and this project has literally been floundering for years because the state hadn’t fully funded it,” said Lance. “Under Governor Anoatubby’s leadership, the Chickasaw Nation really stood up along with other tribal nations to help appropriately fund it through private sources. Because of that, the state passed a bond issuance of $25 million and we now have enough to complete what think will be one of the most significant projects in Oklahoma state history, one that showcases the rich histories of all 39 tribal nations within Oklahoma.”