Home A Q&A with NIGA Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr. A Legacy of Leadership in Support of Tribal Gaming and Sovereignty

A Q&A with NIGA Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr. A Legacy of Leadership in Support of Tribal Gaming and Sovereignty

In an interview with Casino Enterprise Management Managing Editor Marian Green, National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA) Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr. reflects on the organization’s legacy of leadership in support of tribal gaming and sovereignty, including the 30 strong years of offering its annual Indian Gaming trade show. The interview explores NIGA’s achievements and challenges that lie ahead.

Casino Enterprise Management: Talk a little bit about the founding of NIGA and why that was so important.

Stevens: Indian gaming begins and ends with tribal sovereignty—the sovereign authority of tribes to govern actions on our lands. Tribal sovereignty is recognized in the U.S. Constitution and through hundreds of treaties, federal laws and Supreme Court decisions.

Contemporary Indian gaming stems from the local decision-making of tribal leaders who had the vision of determining the future of their communities. Without a doubt, Indian gaming is Indian Self-Determination.

These relatively recent Indian gaming efforts took place in the late 1960s and 1970s. They were almost immediately met with legal and legislative challenges from state governments and the commercial industry.

To address these challenges, in 1985, a handful of tribal leaders put their minds together to protect Indian gaming. These tribes established the National Indian Gaming Association with the vision of giving Indian Country a united voice in Washington, D.C. before Congress and the Executive Branch. NIGA united behind the mission of protecting tribal sovereignty and promoting Indian gaming as a way to develop tribal economies. Our purpose was to educate legislators and the public about Indian gaming.

These core principles and purpose have served our membership and all of Indian Country well, and they continue to guide NIGA to this day.

CEM: It really has been quite a positive economic story.

Stevens: I’ve always said that Indian gaming is the Native American success story. Since the late 1960s, Indian gaming has helped tribes put a new face on our communities. Indian gaming is improving lives. It’s helped address epidemic shortfalls in Indian health care, education, public safety and much more. Revenues are rebuilding reservation infrastructure in the form of roads, communications, water projects, and hospitals, schools, elder care centers and many other projects.

And it’s not just about dollars. For many tribes, Indian gaming is first and foremost about jobs. Indian gaming provides opportunities that have brought entire families back to Indian country.

In the early 80s, I couldn’t find a job at home on my reservation or in the City of Green Bay. But as Indian gaming started to evolve I finished my education and made it back home.

I was elected to the Tribal Council in 1993 as gaming was really getting underway. With the success of our gaming operation we had an employment base of 3,800 people. We were the number one employer in northeastern Wisconsin.

Fast forward to 2013, Indian gaming generated more than 300,000 direct jobs nationwide. These jobs go to Indians and non-Indians alike. We are putting people to work.

And finally, Indian gaming is about collaboration. Prior to Indian gaming, tribal governments and our state and local government neighbors were generally at odds with each other. But through Indian gaming, we’ve built relationships that many never thought possible. Today, it’s common for tribes to have MOUs and other cooperative agreements with state and local governments for public safety, environmental safety, social services and more. Effective tribal-state partnerships enhance economic development in both of our communities.

While Indian Country has come a long way, I’m confident that these relationships will benefit future generations in ways that we’ve yet to realize. Through Indian gaming, we are rebuilding our communities and helping our neighbors along the way.

CEM: With the new Congress in place, what are your impressions of working with the new House and Senate so far?

Stevens: NIGA has always taken a bipartisan approach in reaching out to Congress on our issues. In our view, Indian affairs and Indian gaming are non-partisan issues.

Historically, our champions have come from both sides of the aisle. Former Senate Indian Affairs Committee Chairmen Senators Ben Nighthorse Campbell [a Republican] and Daniel Inouye [a Democrat] were strong protectors of tribal sovereignty. Their bipartisan support carries through today.

In the 114th Congress, two of our strongest champions in the House sit on the Native American Caucus. Representatives Tom Cole [the Caucus Republican Co-Chair and member of the Chickasaw Nation] and Betty McCollum [Caucus Democratic Co-Chair] have been tireless champions of Indian Country.

In addition, many members of Congress don’t have tribes in their districts or states so we really have to get out and educate them and their staffs, providing the information to help the incumbents and the newly elected officials understand who we are and where we come from. So we don’t put a lot of effort into partisan politics.

Every member of Congress has sworn to uphold the Constitution and laws of the United States. We simply work to hold them to their word and remind them—that the Constitution and those laws that you took an oath to uphold recognize Indian tribes as separate governments with inherent rights over our lands, as well as the inherent right to use Indian gaming to rebuild our communities.

CEM: With the federal government, I know you’ve talked about an ambitious agenda for 2015. Can you discuss how that is going?

Stevens: This year, we’ll continue to focus on prospects of federal Internet gaming legislation and the importance of bringing clarity to the tribal land to trust process, and we will renew our efforts to bring governmental parity to federal labor laws.

The Internet gaming debate has been ongoing in Congress for more than 15 years. NIGA’s position on the issue has been consistent. I first testified in 2001 that NIGA is not seeking to expand, promote, or prohibit Internet gaming. We simply ask that any legislation that goes forward preserves the existing rights of Indian tribes as governments to conduct gaming, and affords tribes the same opportunity—as governments—to participate in Internet gaming. Our position hasn’t changed.

Over the past decade, NIGA Member Tribes have refined our position, developing a set of principles to guide Internet gaming legislation that would legalize Internet gaming in the United States. These principles were developed over dozens of meetings, and with input from our regional tribal gaming associations and other national tribal organizations. These are the directives from our tribal leadership, which are guided by the mission to protect tribal sovereignty and to protect rights of all tribes to shape their economic futures. Our principles are grounded in that mission.

Our principles demand that federal Internet gaming bills must treat tribes as governments with a right to operate, regulate, tax and license Internet gaming; that tribal Internet gaming be available to customers in any location where Internet gaming isn’t prohibited; recognize that tribal Internet gaming revenues are not subject to taxation, because tribal revenues are dedicated to the benefit of our communities and thus are 100 percent taxed; protect existing tribal government rights under tribal-state compacts and IGRA; not open IGRA for amendments; provide positive economic benefits to Indian Country; and provide tribes with the right to opt in to participate in any federal Internet gaming system, and not subject tribal eligibility to a state government’s decision to opt-out.

This debate is heating up in the 114th Congress, and NIGA will continue working with Members to ensure that our principles are respected and that Indian gaming and tribal sovereignty are protected.

Another vital issue that NIGA will press for is bringing clarity to the land to trust process and putting a stop to legal attacks on existing Indian lands.

For six years now, all of Indian Country has suffered from the Supreme Court’s attack in the 2009 Carcieri v. Salazar decision. The decision undercuts the ability of tribes to restore our homelands. The Carcieri decision is killing jobs and deterring investment and economic development on Indian lands.

What’s even more disturbing is that the Carcieri decision has led to attacks on existing Indian trust lands through the Patchak and Big Lagoon decisions.

While Carcieri prevents tribes from placing lands into trust, the Patchak and Big Lagoon decisions hold potential to threaten the existing trust lands of all tribes. These decisions violate 240 years of federal law and policy. The sanctity of Indian lands should not be questioned. NIGA will work in 2015 to put a complete stop to these dangerous attacks.

Finally, NIGA will put a renewed focus on bringing parity to federal labor laws. For more than 30 years, the National Labor Relations Board exempted tribal, federal, state and local governments, and the U.S. territories and possessions from the NLRA. In 2004, the NLRB reversed its position only with regard to Indian tribes, and for the past decade, Indian tribes have been the only form of government in the United States that has been subject to the application of the NLRA. In 2015, NIGA is committed to correcting this injustice through enactment of the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act, which would restore treatment of Indian tribes as governments for purposes of federal labor laws. This issue is solely about respect for tribal sovereignty, the U.S. Constitution and the status of tribes as governments.

CEM: What are some of the issues that NIGA is working on, especially post-recession?

Stevens: Pre-recession and post-recession, NIGA has consistently worked with our Member Tribes on diversification and trying to broaden the economic success of Indian gaming.

Indian gaming is helping shape our next generation of Native leaders. Gaming revenues are providing Native youth with educational opportunities that weren’t available prior to gaming. Many kids see their friends and relatives become business leaders, professionals, and see that it’s possible to succeed. We have to foster that trend. We have to move our economies forward, not just in diversifying beyond gaming to other tribal government-run entities, but by providing incentives for our Native entrepreneurs to stay home or come home to build their dream businesses.

To that end, NIGA has worked with our Member Tribes to encourage tribe-to-tribe giving and lending. Through our American Indian Business Network, we’re putting a spotlight on our Native entrepreneurs and highlighting the benefits of hiring Native-owned businesses and Native-produced goods and services. Empowering tribal entrepreneurs and tribal government owned businesses will diversify and strengthen tribal economies.

CEM: What do non-Native peoples need to understand better about Indian gaming and the benefits it brings to their communities at large? Is it easier to tell that story now that you’ve had so many successes?

Stevens: Well, it always depends on the audience. Some folks are willing to be educated, and some folks refuse to accept the facts, choose to ignore history, and just won’t listen to the story. But to answer your question, yes, over the years, it’s been easier to tell our story—because it’s a story of shared success. I said earlier that Indian gaming is the Native American success story, but it’s also the American success story.

Again, Indian gaming provides hundreds of thousands of jobs to American families—Indian and non-Indian alike. These are well-paying jobs with benefits that grow into careers for folks.

On top of these jobs, Indian gaming generates over $13 billion annually for federal, state and local government budgets through compact and service agreements, indirect payments of employment, income, sales and other state taxes, and reduced general welfare payments.

Finally, tribes make more than $100 million each year in charitable contributions to other tribes, nearby state and local governments, and nonprofit and private organizations.

Through these contributions, Indian gaming saved thousands of jobs for American health care workers, fire fighters, police officers, and many other local officials that provide essential services through the Recession.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Indian gaming not only helped America through the Recession, but in fact today we’re helping generate, and fuel an American economic recovery.

CEM: Can you talk a little about the impact that tribal gaming has had on technological advancement in gaming?

Stevens: Technology is a two-way street. We’ve helped push advances and technology, and advances in technology have helped move our industry forward into the 21st Century.

When they enacted the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, Congress was clear that Class II Indian gaming was not limited by traditional notions of bingo or pull tabs. They were equally clear that IGRA intended to give tribes “maximum flexibility” to use “modern” technology to conduct Class II gaming.

As a result, over the past 25 years under IGRA, we’ve seen outstanding innovations in the Class II gaming industry. Our Member Tribes know that a strong Class II Indian gaming industry is key to the overall strength of Indian gaming, and NIGA has provided a strong voice before Congress and the Administration to protect and advance Class II gaming.

Just as important, tribes have used technology to advance our marketing and regulatory systems. You wouldn’t recognize an Indian gaming regulatory system from 1985 if you compared that same system to the technology used today. In 2013 alone, our Member Tribes invested $422 million on regulation. We’ve got 6,500 regulators and we’re using state-of-the-art technology to protect our customers and the integrity of our games.

Four hundred million dollars is a significant investment for tribal leaders. But they know the value of protecting our industry. Our record and experience shows that this system works.

CEM: The American Gaming Association has been reaching out to NIGA and others trying to be more inclusive and united as a gaming industry. What are your thoughts about that?

Stevens: We have a longstanding relationship with the American Gaming Association that started with former NIGA chairman Rick Hill and former AGA President Frank Fahrenkopf. I’ve carried over that relationship with Geoff Freeman, AGA’s president and CEO.

Early on, again back in the 1970s and 80s, many commercial gaming folks viewed Indian gaming as the competition. But over the years, many of those same folks are now helping move Indian gaming forward. They’re investing in tribal operations, helping manage and regulate, and make our industry the gold standard in gaming nationwide.

With regard to AGA, we share some common goals, and I’ve committed to working where those goals are aligned. But again, I’ve got my marching orders from our Tribal Leadership and we have our mission, which is unique. Anything and everything we do must align with that mission to protect tribal sovereignty and the inherent right of tribal governments to conduct gaming to improve the lives of Indian Country.

CEM: You’re nearing the end of your current term as chairman and up for re-election at this year’s show. Could you reflect on your legacy as chairman and your accomplishments and goals for the organization in the future?

Stevens: On the first day I was elected as I took the baton from Rick Hill, I made the promise to work every single day of my life to protect tribal sovereignty, to listen to our tribal leaders, and to work to bring consensus and unity to our voice before Congress.

It’s been an unbelievable honor to serve as chairman of NIGA, and for the past 14 years, I’ve kept this promise and I’ve been guided by our tribal leaders and by our mission. It hasn’t failed me once.

At various points over the past 14 years, Indian gaming has faced near constant attacks and challenges in the courts, in Congress, and in the Administration. I am proud to report that we’ve beat back each and every challenge we’ve faced.

At the same time, we’ve earned some positive gains along the way. Our most recent victory could be our most long lasting. In the 113th Congress, which many tagged as the ultimate do-nothing Congress, NIGA made our own opportunities and saw an opening to strengthen tribal sovereignty by helping spearhead a national tribal effort to reform the Internal Revenue Service.

For decades, the United States has fallen far short of upholding its treaty and trust obligations to provide for the health, education and general welfare of Indian people. Year after year, we’ve seen cuts and multi-million dollar shortfalls in federal programs for Indian health care, education, housing and many others.

A number of tribes grew tired of waiting on the government to meet its obligations, and instead took the initiative to provide these benefits to improve the lives of their people.

But instead of fostering these acts of self-determination, the IRS sought to punish tribes and individual Indians by trying to impose income taxes on benefits gained from a tribal program or service. Again, we’re talking about education scholarships, burial stipends, funds to help build access ramps for an elder’s home, and similar programs.

These IRS investigations violated treaty promises and directly conflicted with the government’s policy supporting Indian Self-Determination—and on top of that, they made no practical sense.

To put a stop to these attacks, NIGA and our Member Tribes blanketed Capitol Hill, gaining supporters from both sides of the aisle.

In September 2014, all of Indian Country put their shoulder into a historic effort that resulted in passage of the Tribal General Welfare Exclusion Act.

The Act amends the Tax Code to better align the federal tax system with federal Indian law and policy. It clarifies that tribal government programs aren’t subject to federal income tax. And it forces long overdue reforms of the IRS and its work in Indian Country.

This is possibly the best example of what Indian Country can do when we ignore the naysayers and stand united. Our thanks go out to the Tribal Leadership for their tireless work in advancing this historic effort.

In addition to these victories, I’d like to think that along the way NIGA has built some goodwill on Capitol Hill as an honest straight shooting organization that’s a resource on everything related to Indian gaming and tribal sovereignty.

One final short story that I’d like to share is the blessing that I had last fall to be inducted into the Gaming Hall of Fame in Las Vegas. When I accepted that award, I accepted it on behalf of the leaders that brought us to where we are today, and to the leadership that have come before me, especially those who’ve gone on to the spirit world. The positive change that many see in Indian Country today are because of the work of those pioneers, those folks who committed to working morning, noon and night, sacrificing time with their family, time with their community to make sure tribal sovereignty was protected and that reservation economies move forward.

NIGA Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr. delivers an acceptance speech during Gaming Hall of Fame induction ceremonies last fall in Las Vegas.
NIGA Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr. delivers an acceptance speech during Gaming Hall of Fame induction ceremonies last fall in Las Vegas.
CEM: This year marks the 30th anniversary of NIGA’s Indian Gaming trade show. What are your thoughts on that milestone?

Stevens: Tribal governments are stronger, and our trade show keeps getting stronger. I always bring my work back to the work of my father. He dedicated his career to fighting to protect tribal sovereignty. He did it with very few resources, but made his gains through dedication working alongside so many icons that were staunch advocates for tribal sovereignty. Tribal leaders use that same energy for the work they do on the ground every day in improving the lives of tribal communities nationwide. At NIGA we bring that same energy from all of Indian Country and focus it through a united voice. That’s why we are strong today and that’s what will keep us strong.

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