Celebrating the past and strengthening the future


NIGA's Indian Gaming '08 Trade show and Convention set for April 20 - 23 in San Diego

SAN DIEGO - When the National Indian Gaming Association hosts its 17th annual meeting and ''Indian Gaming '08,'' the spirit of Wendell Chino will be energizing NIGA Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr.

''It's no coincidence that Wendell Chino is honored here,'' Stevens said of the late iconic Mescalero Apache leader, who is known as the ''Father of Indian Casinos.''

Indian Gaming '08 is the most comprehensive gaming trade show and convention in the country. It will take place at the San Diego Convention Center April 20 - 23.

Thousands of tribal leaders, tribal delegates and industry professionals are expected to attend. The event offers four days of intense activities intended to update those in the gaming business with the latest industry trends, and provide networking opportunities and enhanced business relationships - and fun.

Primarily, it provides an opportunity for strengthening tribal leadership solidarity and planning the future, said Stevens, a member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin.

''I think the most important thing is the goal which NIGA stands for - that's bringing the tribal leadership together to strengthen and build upon our success and strategize our future challenges, and figure a way that we can build on our 20 years of success. If we can have another 20 years of this kind of success, we'll see a better place for Indian country,'' Stevens said.

NIGA, established in 1985, is a nonprofit organization of 184 Indian nations with other nonvoting associate members representing organizations, tribes and businesses engaged in tribal gaming enterprises from around the country. NIGA's overarching goal is to advance the lives of Indian peoples economically, socially and politically.

Indian Gaming '08 will showcase more than 500 vendors and exhibitors representing all aspects of the gaming and hospitality industries. A number of Native entertainers also will perform throughout the week. More than 150 seminars, workshops, certifications and roundtables targeting every aspect of the Indian gaming industry will be held.

A symposium focusing on the 20 years since the passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act will take place at the convention center April 23 from 2 - 5 p.m., followed by a reception until 7 p.m. Co-sponsored by the Sycuan Institute on Tribal Gaming/San Diego State University and NIGA's Spirit of Sovereignty Foundation, the symposium will highlight patterns of economic development and tribal government strengthening made possible by the access to predictable revenue streams generated by Indian gaming. The program is free and open to the public.

''It's specifically centered on rebuilding Indian communities over the past 20 years,'' Stevens said. ''We're going to examine the ways in which Indian governments are exercising tribal sovereignty through expenditures of tribal revenues on government capacity building, and economic diversity. Our main focus is stronger government, but at the same time we now want to diversify our economies. We know our future relies on economic development and also beyond gaming. We have to really take it to that level.''

Does Stevens think IGRA is threatened, as some tribal leaders have said?

''That's what this IGRA panel is about. I think that there's always a threat to IGRA, because people don't understand tribal sovereignty and don't understand that where we came from was so devastating that 20 years of success is just a drop in the bucket compared to what we've got to do to make our communities a better place.''

One of the highlights of the NIGA convention is the presentation of the Wendell Chino Humanitarian Award, which honors tribal leaders who have distinguished themselves as leaders in the betterment of Natives in Indian country over the past year. The presentation will be made at a banquet April 22.

Chino was an unflagging advocate for Indian self-determination and one of the strongest voices for American Indian rights during the 1960s and beyond.

''Wendell Chino, Roger Jourdain and a lot of leaders didn't want any part of IGRA,'' Stevens said. ''They fought this thing because they knew it was a diminishment of tribal sovereignty.''

When the Cabazon and Morongo tribes won their historic 1987 U.S. Supreme Court case in which the court ruled that the state had no authority to interfere in tribal government operations on tribal lands, including the two tribes' high-stakes bingo operations, the tribes were ready to move forward, Stevens said.

''IGRA was something given to us by outside influence in Congress,'' he said. ''We've wrapped ourselves around this law, and we defend it, not because we love it. We defend this law because it governs our right to engage in gaming. We defend this law because we cannot afford and we shouldn't have to deal with any further diminishment of our rights in this country.''

While a majority - including non-Indians who make up more than half of the work force in Indian casinos - support tribal gaming operations, there are naysayers who don't share the tribal values of concern for the elders and the seven generations and would rather see the tribes struggle, he said.

''Despite our success, we still have a tremendous amount of tribes out there who haven't even begun to rebuild their communities. So we've got a long way to go and we know it, and that's why we cannot allow any law - not just IGRA - to diminish our sovereign right to engage in gaming.''

For agenda updates and descriptions of workshops, as well as sponsorship opportunities, visit www.indiangaming.org.