A Long and Winding Road

It’s been more than 20 years now—1988 to be precise—since Las Vegas-style gaming on tribal government land was given an acid test to determine its legality. The test, California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians, concluded that indeed it was legal. Knowing full well that the precedent setting outcome would open up the flood gates with other tribal governments wanting to exercise their right to engage in this new and potentially lucrative business, Congress went into hyper drive passing the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA). The new law defined three specific classifications of gaming and formed a new governmental body, the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC), to act as an oversight agency over tribes’ gaming commissions. IGRA also required states to, in good faith, enter into negotiations with tribes wishing to form gaming compacts with the states. The latter didn’t always go smoothly, but today, with more than 225 gaming compacted tribes in the U.S., it’s hard to argue that the change hasn’t been a resounding success.

There are many great men and women whose leadership and determination have fought hard to preserve and have helped usher the way for Indian gaming since its inception. One such leader was the late Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians’ Chairman Richard Milanovich. He was a great man who was equally committed to preserving Indian culture and tradition, as well as applying his leadership in today’s world of politics, business and economic development. Milanovich died in March after a long and courageous battle with cancer. His legacy and good deeds as chairman of Agua Caliente will live on and act as an example for the tribal government leaders of today and tomorrow. My heartfelt condolences go out to his family, friends and others who were touched by this great man’s good works.

It’s been a year since the National Indian Gaming Association held its annual trade show and conference in Phoenix, the setting for the bi-annual election for the position of NIGA chairman. 2011 brought with it a hotly fought campaign between two longtime veterans of Indian gaming: Ivan Makil and Ernie Stevens Jr. Few were certain how it would go, but in the end, the outcome was a resounding 121 to 14 vote of confidence for 10-year incumbent NIGA chairman Ernie Stevens Jr., to continue on with his efforts, accomplishments and hard work for the 184 Indian Nations he represents. NIGA’s efforts for tribes striving for self-sufficiency through Indian gaming have been a decade-long success story.

There is, of course, a catch with success. Unscrupulous people will inevitably try to take from you. Challenges to tribal sovereignty have been a common issue for tribal governance to deal for many years, but today the attacks on it are becoming more frequent. The tactics being employed by certain special interest groups are tasteless and un-American. Shamefully, they are promoting anti-Indian attitudes by presenting the false perception that tribes are granted special rights. This is just simply not the case, but presented as truth makes a false and misleading point.

The relationship between the United States and Indian tribes is based on and built upon the doctrine of trust responsibility. The nature of this relationship has been affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court time and time again. The courts believe the principle has long dominated the government’s dealings with Indians and proves the undisputed existence of a general trust relationship between the United States and the Indian people. The trust doctrine is fundamental to federal Indian law. Almost every law enacted by Congress in the last 50 years involving Indians and tribes has found its support in the federal government’s trust obligations. That is precisely why Indian country needs its strong and determined leaders to be there and continue fighting the good fight.

Peter E. Mead
Casino Enterprise Management

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