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Jamestown S’Klallam leader celebrates IGRA at conference

LAS VEGAS – The 2009 Gaming Law Minefield, which took place Feb. 5-6, is unique among major gaming conferences because it targets professionals – attorneys, compliance officers, regulators, legislators and American Indian leaders. This year’s conference was the 13th annual event.

The conference was intensely scheduled and focused on the cutting edge legal, regulatory and ethical issues confronting both Indian and commercial gaming. The organizers call it the most comprehensive “state-of-the-law” gaming program. Panels of experts provided insight into current trends, opportunities and obstacles in the industry and attendees accumulated mandatory continuing legal education (MCLE) accreditation.

This year’s program focused on new gaming technology, challenges facing tribal leaders, hot topics in the industry and the impact of the November 2008 elections on gaming issues.

Among the presentations were three panels exploring Indian gaming issues: Tribal Gaming Deals: Business, Law & Regulations, Hot Gaming Topics in Indian Country; and IGRA (Indian Gaming Regulatory Act): 20 Years later.

W. Ron Allen, tribal chairman and executive director of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, was invited to speak on the IGRA panel. Allen’s vast resume includes being a delegate to the National Congress of American Indians; tribal commissioner on the Pacific Salmon Commission; treasurer of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians; co-chair of the National Indian Policy Center at George Washington University, president of the Washington Indian Gaming Association, and more.

Indian Country Today caught up with Allen shortly before the conference to discuss the topics he would be speaking on and other thoughts on gaming in Indian country as it is today and where it needs to go.

Indian Country Today: So, what do you plan to talk about at Gaming Law Minefield?

Ron Allen: I intend on talking a lot about the unique structure of tribes and how gaming fits into our economies, and why we are unique in our political and economic systems and native governments and communities.

The general theme is going to be about why we have this unique stature and why IGRA opened up a whole new opportunity for a large number of tribes and communities across America. I intend on talking about all the positive things that have resulted from that and how the non-Indian communities and tax systems have benefited from the things that have happened across Indian country in terms of jobs and tax bases and stabilizing economies.

ICT: That’s a good point that’s often ignored.

RA: Then I’m going to move into why it’s been so beneficial to Indian communities with respect to how, as a result of their activities, they have made incredible strides in accomplishing individual and collective goals of becoming independent and self-regulating within their own resource base. I want to talk about our businesses and our tax base and why they should not be viewed as commercial.

I also intend to spend a little time on how gaming has not made a positive impact on over half of the Indian communities in America. My message will be, don’t confuse Mashantucket and Mohegan and Shakopee and San Manuel with the mainstream in Indian country. Those are tribes that happen to be in great locations and great circumstances and the majority are very small tribes. Gaming is not having a positive effect on a large tribe like Navajo or the Lakota – a lot of those tribes are simply not able to address their long-lived community needs.

ICT: What do you see as a solution to that?

RA: I think that’s going to be an important issue of the Obama administration as well as Congress. When you think about the need for infrastructure, both physical infrastructure and telecommunications infrastructure, that’s the last place they reach out to – the rural communities – and, unfortunately, those rural communities are where the predominant number of Indian communities reside.

I can also show you many tribes that live in more populous areas, but they still have never acquired and developed the resources within their own operations to be able to make the transition from governmental affairs into business affairs and sustain a bright line between the two so that policies and political matters don’t overlap into business decisions that are of a different nature and different set of conditions to be successful. On the optimistic side, it’s rising, but it’s slow.

ICT: So, how do you enhance those economies?

RA: It’s not an easy question to answer and it varies so dramatically across America when you think of California, Alaska, Wyoming or North Dakota.

ICT: I understand that some remote areas are the most resource-rich. Anishinaabeg land in Minnesota has enormous wind power potential, but no way of distributing electricity onto the grid. Is that something you think the Obama administration could jump on – extending the electric grid to these remote places?

RA: The answer is yes, and there are a lot of examples like that if the question is asked, ‘How are we going to reach these communities in order to take advantage of the resources they have and assist them in strengthening their basic economies outside of the gaming industry?’ which just doesn’t work for everyone everywhere.

That’s a question (to which) the Department of Commerce and the Department of Energy could say, ‘We’re going to commit x-number of resources to address that issue,’ and, quite frankly, this stimulus bill (Obama’s proposed $800 billion stimulus bill) could be the vehicle to make that happen.

ICT: What’s another example?

RA: Because the Internet has become the commercial highway for America, if the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) and the Department of Commerce started making meaningful commitments to extending the Internet, the fiber optics system, to rural communities, there are a lot of industries that would move to more remote areas. As long as you have the Internet, you can market whatever you have.

The other thing that’s relevant is access to transportation – roads, airports, seaports, etc. in terms of enhancing those facilities. As long as you have the infrastructure you can get your products to market.

ICT: Getting back to the gaming forum, what’s your opinion on the question of opening up IGRA to amendments?

RA: The tribes definitely feel that IGRA can be opened up to correct many of the problems that were not foreseen when it was developed, but the problem is the state and other interested parties are so negative to the tribes’ authority, which IGRA clearly reaffirmed, that the majority of us feel more harm would be done in opening it up than good.

We can see those interests meddling with the act and trying to redefine ‘essential government services.’ Now, does ‘essential government services’ mean the administrative functions of healthcare, housing, education, natural resources, etc., or does it also include economic development operations that generate revenues? Because, for the most part, tribes don’t have tax bases, so if they’re going to become self reliant that’s how they do it.