Let the games begin

Indian gaming. A virtually unknown phenomenon some 15 short years ago, the effect of these two words is never far from the surface in Indian country; indeed, they cast their shadow over almost every issue of interest to Native Americans. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, with which Congress recognized the right of Indian nations to operate gaming establishments, opened the long-shuttered doors to economic development for many tribes.

Tribes are reaping the benefits of the most lucrative economic opportunity given them, while new players line up to enter the fray, some eagerly, some more cautiously; nevertheless, the expansion of casino and other gaming activities by Indian tribes around the nation continues unabated.

"Tribes realize that the success of gaming is not an end in itself," says a statement on the web site of the National Indian Gaming Association, an industry trade association comprised of member tribal casinos. "Rather, it is a bridge to help regain what was once theirs long ago ? true self-respect, self-determination and economic self-sufficiency. Many tribes are looking beyond gaming and diversifying their economic base with other businesses. The skills and resources tribes are amassing in gaming will help assure their future and their children's future."

Operations often begun as a small casino or slot parlor, have in many cases blossomed into full-scale resorts, complete with high-end hotels, gourmet restaurants, championship golf courses and other such amenities. Tribes have used gaming proceeds to fund housing and medical care for their elders, schools for their children and college for their young adults. Some tribes have established economic development funds and instituted loan-guarantee programs to help members enter the business world.

Tribally owned economic enterprises have sprouted and multiplied; such ventures range from gas stations and convenience stores to construction companies, full-service savings banks, and even newspapers.

So too have the economic benefits of legal Indian gaming spilt over into surrounding non-Indian communities, largely in the form of steady employment which often comes with competitive pay, medical benefits and retirement investment plans. Many tribes are community leaders in terms of the number of employees. When the Texas attorney general recently shut down the Tigua tribe's casino near El Paso, the fiscal fortunes of tribal and non-tribal people in the region both took a hard hit.

Often unnoticed are financial contributions, made in lieu of taxes, by tribes to local governments and school systems. Payments to municipal authorities are generally for things like water and sewer services, fire and police department coverage, while monies paid to local public schools are meant as compensation for acquired tribal land being removed from the tax rolls.

Many gaming detractors point to the evils of gambling, such as corruption and the plethora of "lowlife" elements, including gangsters, prostitutes and drug dealers, stereotypically associated with casinos and gambling. Despite localized reports to the contrary, such problems do not appear to have materialized to any noticeable extent.

Concerns of greater traffic congestion and pollution generated by casino patrons, however, are taken quite seriously, especially in smaller communities, as residents sometimes resent the disruption to their small-town solitude.

People unable to cope with addictive or compulsive gambling problems can quickly ruin their own and their families' financial security, another area of concern not to be minimized or dismissed. Many tribes have offered to fund gambling treatment programs, or have been required to do so by their compacts.

The "not-in-my-backyard" phenomenon has also reared its head. The highly publicized Louisiana battle between the Jena Band of Choctaws, the Coushatta Tribe, the state's governor, and private gaming interests has spawned calls for an initiative to let local residents decide whether to accept casinos in their communities. This ongoing drama has not only pitted Indian tribes against each other and non-Indian casino operators in the competition for prime building locations, but has also revealed another state's interest in getting a piece of the pie and a governor's "secret" negotiations toward that end.

Some states, including Nebraska and Massachusetts, are exploring the idea of allowing casinos, perhaps to both create jobs and to stem the flight of residents' disposable income to neighboring states. Despite vehement opposition from the governor of Maine, tribes and other parties in that state are exploring a casino on the New Hampshire border to tap the metropolitan Boston market.

Connecticut, on the other hand, is reportedly considering the repeal of its so-called "Las Vegas Nights" in an attempt to prevent further casinos within its borders. There is also a motion afoot, in that state and elsewhere, to limit future tribal recognition, to stem casino growth.

The possibility of six new gaming compacts to be awarded in upstate New York has attracted a myriad of suitors from both within the state and without. Albany seeks to resolve various tribal land claims against the state and has linked compact negotiation to claim settlement. Tribes currently living in other states and in Canada and who trace their origins to what is now New York have entered the fray. One party, the Oneida Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, has filed multiple lawsuits against non-Indian property owners in an attempt to force state negotiation.

[ICT is owned by Four Directions Media, Inc., an enterprise of the Oneida Indian Nation of New York. The Nation recently announced the framework of an agreement with New York State and neighboring counties to settle its land claim. The Wisconsin Oneidas are not part of that settlement.]

Advocates of Indian gaming point out that theirs is the most heavily regulated gambling industry in America. The National Indian Gaming Commission, the industry's federal regulator, recently shut down an Oklahoma casino operated by the Ponca Tribe. Although the tribe said it was in compliance with federal gaming regulations, NIGC alleged a failure to adequately track money through the casino, install security cameras or properly screen employees.

As casino-related news has come to dominate our Trade & Commerce pages of late, we at ICT have created this column. Each week, ICT will reserve this space to examine Indian gaming with an eye on examining and revisiting the issues. Trends and technology, compacting and other legal matters, regulatory oversight, tribal self-policing, and new developments will be some of the topics to be tackled in this column.

Readers' suggestions are welcome, as always.