Arguably, the most significant economic development in Indian country since the start of the self-determination era has been the assertion by tribal governments of their rights to operate gaming enterprises.''
So begins the chapter on Indian gaming within ''The State of the Native Nations,'' the remarkably comprehensive summary produced by The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development (Oxford University Press, 2008). The 1987 affirmation of the Commerce Clause, Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, by the U.S. Supreme Court in California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians paved the way for the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988. Although controversial in its scope - the law divided regulation of different classes of gaming among tribal, federal and state agencies - IGRA nonetheless reinvigorated tribal economies entangled in constraints of the self-determination era.
Today, the law generates much debate within academic halls, courtrooms, op-ed pages, community meetings and executive suites. That discourse continues this month at the National Indian Gaming Association's Indian Gaming '08 Trade Show and Convention. A symposium focusing on the past 20 years since the passage of the IGRA, co-sponsored by the Sycuan Institute on Tribal Gaming at San Diego State University and NIGA's Spirit of Sovereignty Foundation, will take place at the San Diego Convention Center April 23. The program is free and open to the public. In the fall, another event to commemorate and celebrate the anniversary of the policy's enactment, ''Indian Country's Winning Hand: 20 Years of IGRA,'' will be held in October at the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation's Radisson Fort McDowell Resort & Casino in Scottsdale, Ariz. A consortium of organizations dedicated to Indian gaming, law and policy play host to the two-day conference.
IGRA requires Indian gaming revenues to be invested among five critical areas for socio-economic development: tribal government operations, promotion of the welfare of the tribe and its citizens, economic development, support of charitable organizations, and compensation to local and non-Indian governments for support of services provided by those governments. By no accident, the Wendell Chino Humanitarian Award, presented each year at NIGA, is given to Indian leaders who demonstrate a commitment to peace and fair governance, and are dedicated to intercultural understanding and easing social injustice. The people celebrate in their leaders what IGRA has required of the gaming tribes.
Tribes have and continue to set high standards for the ways gaming revenues are distributed, often exemplifying the generosity of spirit for which Native peoples are known. Just a few examples of the wealth experienced by beneficiaries of Indian gaming revenues: A grateful collective of 28 schools and education programs on and around the Coeur d'Alene reservation in Idaho have received $6 million over a five-year period from the tribe. The Kalispel Tribe in Washington recently opened the doors of a grand, state-of-the-art wellness center. The Camas Center, financed by tribal gaming profits, overlooks spiritually enriching grounds on the Kalispel territory. In Oklahoma, where gaming revenues rank third in the country, gaming tribes are among the top employers in the state. There tribes have had a sure hand in reinventing the state's economy, including boosts to the construction, tourism and real estate industries. Successful gaming tribes in the East are among the top donors to the National Museum of the American Indian, a place striving to become the premiere Native educational center and home-away-from-community in the U.S. capital.
After two decades of increasing bottom lines of some tribal governments and, thus, their influence on and off Indian territories, Indian gaming is now woven within the fabric of American culture. A little under half of all federally recognized tribes operate gaming enterprises. Of those tribes, a relatively small group accounts for most of the wealth derived from gaming. But gaming profits - because of a few tribes' trailblazing financial success - has been about the only topic of interest for mainstream media for most of IGRA's 20 years. The myth perpetuated by mainstream media of the ''rich Indian'' belies the complexity of Indian life. Despite its reputation as an economic engine, gaming has proved not to be a panacea. If anything, the media's emphasis on profits has led countless local, state and federal lawmakers to complain that Indian gaming is out of control, or that tribal governments do not pay a so-called ''fair share,'' leading dangerously to policy based on perception.
As amendments to the regulatory framework of IGRA are being considered, it is crucial that the nation-building processes constructed by gaming tribes receive due attention. For this reason, Indian Country Today expands its tribal gaming coverage in a new magazine, Indian Country Gaming Today. Our inaugural issue will debut at Global Gaming Expo in November. Examining the industry from the inside and reporting outward, ICT places emphasis on the ''Indian'' element of Indian gaming. With a strong core of reporting, and commentary from leaders, policy influencers, decision makers and professionals, ICT offers a compelling perspective on the past, present and future of Indian gaming. We are excited to fulfill our overall mission of providing timely, fair and culturally informed coverage to Indian gaming, its people and players.