NEW YORK - Indian gaming recently received a brief moment in the spotlight of national television when Ernest L. Stevens Jr., chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association, told the nation of the benefits that gaming has brought to numerous tribes and the non-Indian communities surrounding them.
On Aug. 12, Stevens appeared on the Fox Television Network's news/talk show "The O'Reilly Factor," hosted by political commentator Bill O'Reilly. In the brief time allotted to him, and despite frequent and annoying interruptions by the host, Stevens made his point well.
"It's unfortunate that there's still some struggle out there," said Stevens, referring to the fact that not all tribes have been able to benefit from Indian gaming. "I think that's our job to correct that. We're working on that very intensely. The United States government has an obligation [to Indians] and we continue to assert those treaty rights. But we don't have time to wait around. It's our important responsibility to help one another, and we have a long track record of helping one another."
Because federally recognized tribes are considered sovereign entities, they are not required to publicly disclose gaming revenues and aren't covered under the aegis of the Freedom of Information Act. O'Reilly suggested that as a public relations move, gaming tribes "open their books" to dispel unfounded allegations that gaming funds are being used to enrich a small minority of Indians.
"I think any type of negotiation between sovereigns is workable," replied Stevens, meaning that such disclosures might be negotiable as part of the compacting process. "Any time sovereigns want to work together and negotiate information, we're willing to do that."
Stevens noted and O'Reilly concurred that gaming tribes across the country made $68 million in charitable contributions annually.
O'Reilly then shifted gears to grill Stevens on the recent raid by Rhode Island State Police of a tobacco shop operated by the Narragansett Indians.
"It goes back to communication and tribal sovereignty," Stevens reiterated. "I didn't come here to talk about the Narragansetts, but I will say that I continue to stand by their sovereign rights. But again, it's communication and dialogue."
O'Reilly interrupted Stevens to ask who he thought was "being unfair in that case."
"I think that you have to recognize tribal sovereignty and you have to recognize the Narragansett tribal government," Stevens said, acknowledging the establishment of a commission to investigate the unfortunate smoke shop raid, video images of which were shown on the screen as he spoke.
Next, O'Reilly put his foot deeply into his mouth when he began to say "But if you allow Native Americans to violate state law - " Stevens jumped in to point out that tribes are "are just like states, we're sovereigns within sovereigns," implying that state laws do not always apply to tribal lands absent a negotiated agreement with local authorities.
"Throughout this country we have good service agreements, good working agreements regarding that fact," said Stevens. "I think that the state of Rhode Island and the Narragansetts can come together" to forge an understanding along those lines.
In the segment's final half minute, O'Reilly posed the question, "What do you want America to know about Indian gaming?"
"I want to tell you that Indian gaming is the Native American success story," Stevens asserted, after inviting O'Reilly's two prior anti-Indian gaming guests to visit Indian country because "they've never been there ? and they've got a lot to learn.
"We have [created] 300,000 jobs nationwide," Stevens continued, getting back to the point. "We're providing good quality homes, education, health care - we're doing great things out there. And let me tell you this, in North and South Dakota where you said that we weren't touching them - 6,000 jobs. The South Dakota school of business said that per capita income is rising."
"Open the books and I think the problem will dissipate quickly," O'Reilly opined, closing the segment.
Despite his penchant for verbally cutting off his guests and straying from the subject, O'Reilly may have a point. Greater openness with tribal revenue streams would certainly dispel rumors of corruption and financial negligence.
But a tribe should not necessarily have to reveal its financial structure if it chooses not to. A recent NIGA initiative to better educate the public on the purposes and benefits of Indian gaming, of which Stevens' appearance on Fox was a part, will hopefully prove fruitful. [See Jim Adams' article "NIGA midyear will teach how to deal with media" (Vol. 23 Iss 9).]
Stevens, a Wisconsin Oneida who was reelected as NIGA's chairman last April, made his rebuttal appearance on the show in response to the program's June 16 broadcast, during a pair of non-Indian guests referred to Indian gaming as a "scam."
Indian gaming's purpose
In a short preface to Stevens' appearance, Fox announcer Shepard Smith noted that "in these financially troubled times a lot of people have a problem" with the fact that Indian casinos are not subject to taxation. But, he asked, "Are they forgetting why Native Americans have that exemption?"
Indian gaming was not created to be a profit mechanism, but rather as a tool to help tribes escape the cycle of poverty and provide for their members' health care, education and general welfare. It is the only means of economic development that has consistently helped tribes gain a measure of financial self-sufficiency.
"Exemption from certain taxes, primarily state taxes, happens because of the unique federal-tribal relationship," explained Jacob Coin of CNIGA.
A city councilor from California and a member of that state's taxpayer's association both argued that because tribes and tribal members benefit from such public services as roads, schools, and fire and police protection, they should pay the same state taxes as "everyone else."
But the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act leaves it up to tribal and state governments to negotiate the specifics of gaming compacts, including duration and revenue sharing. Disparities between the amounts collected by various states from tribal gaming operations have caused many to raise their eyebrows.
"California collects $140 million a year from 54 tribes operating 50,000 slot machines. By contrast, Connecticut gets $400 million from just 12,000 slots; New York [gets] $36 million from one tribe," Smith observed.
This situation, however, cannot rightly be blamed on the Indian nations who like any other businessmen have a vested interest in securing for themselves the best deal possible. State negotiators have of late gotten wise to the fact that a busy casino can help pad the bottom line in many fiscally ailing states. But in the absence of federal guidance regarding an acceptable and consistent level of revenue sharing, tribes and states will continue to butt heads at the negotiating table.
"This is the law that was made by the [federal] government and the states," said Brenda Soulliere, head of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association. "The tribes are having to play by those rules."