Great Women of Indian Gaming

“The fastest way to change society is to mobilize the women of the world.”—Charles  Malik. That saying has and still holds very true for Indian gaming. There is no question that the success of Indian country is due in large part to the great women of Indian gaming. From the humble beginnings of our bingo halls to the world-class resorts that tribes offer our customers today, strong Native American women have been there helping pave the way to where we are today.

In the early years of contemporary Indian gaming, a handful of tribal governments in the late 1960s and early 1970s grew tired of waiting on the United States to fulfill its treaty and trust obligations to provide for the general care of Native American communities. These tribes fully embraced the emerging federal policy supporting Indian self-determination. It was these tribes that took measures in their own hands to rebuild their communities by opening the first modern Indian gaming operations.

As a means to pay the utilities at the Oneida Nation Memorial Building, better known as the Civic Center, a group of women introduced the first gaming enterprise on the reservation just outside of Green Bay, Wis., in 1976. It was not long before Sandra Ninham and Alma Webster, “The Bingo Queens of Oneida,” were running a successful bingo operation. Bingo was not only keeping the lights on at the Civic Center, but it also financed vital health clinics, nursing home care, housing developments and other services for the tribal community.

As Oneida bingo began to take off, I remember playing basketball in the gym on our reservation. I remember the frustration as a young athlete having to share the gym and wanting to work out in our only basketball facility. The two ladies that ran the bingo, “The Bingo Queens of Oneida,” helped me through my frustration by explaining that bingo is providing the Oneida Nation with a source of revenue that keeps the lights on in our gym so that we could play basketball and participate in other recreational activities. Today we have a few of the most state-of-the-art gymnasiums that are fully equipped as a result of the success of our operations.

Back then, Ninham was the assistant director for the Oneida Civic Center under David “Sonny” King while Webster served as tribal treasurer. It was Webster’s pastime playing bingo in Michigan that gave her and others the idea to start a bingo operation at the Oneida Civic Center to help fund facility operations. It was not long after opening that bingo operation that many tribal members became gainfully employed and learned new customer service skills. Up until this time, many tribal members had to leave the reservation, their homes and their families in order to pursue employment opportunities. Today, not only do many of our tribal members have jobs available to them, but many people in Northeast Wisconsin also have jobs and outstanding benefit packages as a result of Indian gaming.

Another great Oneida woman, Irene Moore, encouraged these women leaders. Moore was an elder tribal community leader who recognized the strength in everyone. Fluent in the Oneida language, Moore proudly served as the first chairwoman of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin in 1963. She took the helm of our tribal government with a mission to restore and revive our great nation. In recognition of her work, bingo on the Oneida reservation is held at the Irene Moore Activity Center otherwise known as the IMAC Bingo Hall. This not only signifies the importance of Moore’s role in encouraging the women of our reservation to be leaders but also the importance of her role in identifying the gifts and talents that women brought to the future success of our nation.

Ninham and Webster have been role models for others in the industry as well. They dedicated themselves to being professional, ethical and hardworking and were among the first ambassadors in Indian country to welcome non-Native American customers to our reservation. This was not only groundbreaking—it was trailblazing! In those days reservations were not frequented often by outside communities and therefore misunderstood by the non-Native communities that surrounded them. These women broke those barriers down by extending warmth, cheer, friendliness and hospitality that was handed down from the generations preceding them. Many tribes from across the country came to visit Ninham and Webster and the Oneida Bingo operations to learn from the very best when they were investigating and completing their due diligence for entrance into the gaming industry. The “Oneida Bingo Queens” are the essence of great women of Indian gaming.

The National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA) and Indian country stand in awe of the hard work, dedication and many gifts that our Native sisters have brought to the Indian gaming industry. We honor past awardees and we offer our congratulations to all of this year’s winners of the Great Women of Gaming Awards, including two from Indian country. We are grateful, and our thanks go out to the many Great Women of Indian Gaming!

Reference: Mike Hoeft, (2014), The Bingo Queens of Oneida, 1st ed., WI Historical Society.

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