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NIGA countdown: Conference, Tradeshow Begins April 3

This year’s conference features workshops, training, awards – and an election for chairman

PHOENIX, Arizona – A tribal elder with 10 children, 23 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren, who began serving Indian country more than four decades ago, will receive the Wendell Chino Humanitarian Award at the National Indian Gaming Association’s 2011 Indian Gaming Tradeshow & Convention.

The National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA) convention will take place April 3-6 at the Phoenix Convention Center. The annual conference event brings together Indian gaming industry leaders, tribal leaders and representatives from more than 200 tribal governments who own and operate more than 400 casinos. The conference provides opportunities for networking, training and certifications for Indian gaming, and workshops on some of the most crucial issues facing Indian country. Around 2,000 people are expected to attend. A Cultural Reception will feature singers and dancers from nearby Indian nations as well as a Tlingit dance troupe from Alaska. And more than 350 exhibitors will display their goods and services at the trade show.

The Wendell Chino Humanitarian Award Banquet is one of the high points of the social events at the conference. This year’s recipient of the Wendell Chino Award is Gov. William R. Rhodes, 78, of the Gila River Indian Community. Before taking the oath of office on January 1, 2006, he served his community, beginning in 1970, as chief judge, lieutenant governor, and tribal council member. Rhodes began his career with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and later moved to the Gila River Police Department. He was the first Native American Deputy Sheriff with the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office from 1965 -1968. Throughout the years, Rhodes has served on many boards and volunteer organizations. He is an elder with the Goodyear Presbyterian Church and has served on the Native American Committee on Native American Ministries for 18 years.

Wendell Chino, the award’s namesake, is an iconic figure in Indian country. He was a nationally recognized leader of the Mescalero Apache Nation, serving most of his life as his nation’s president. During that time he raised his tribe from poverty to prosperity through his advocacy and practice of “red capitalism.” He urged tribal nations to regain control of their lands, exercise sovereignty and grow. And he modeled his philosophy by turning the Mescalero reservation into a small business empire that raised his nation to a level of economic growth never before experienced by any other Native American tribe. Chino reportedly once joked that "The Zuni make jewelry, the Navajo make blankets, and the Apache make money."

NIGA Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr. congratulated Rhodes in advance of the conference. “Gov. Rhodes has worked his entire career in advocating for tribes and he’s really served Indian country at a great level,” Stevens said. “The Wendell Chino Award Humanitarian Award is one of the highest awards in Indian country and Gov. Rhodes has certainly earned it.”

The first day of the conference – Sunday, April 3 – is mostly devoted to fun. A few organizational meetings take place in the afternoon sandwiched between three golf tournaments in the morning and a combined Chairman’s Welcome Reception and Jam on the Rez event in the evening where Blues Traveler will provide the music. The conference workshops and meetings begin early on Monday.

“The economy, jobs, Internet gaming, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s Carcieri decision are all top issues that will be discussed. They’re all important issues relating to matters of Indian gaming,” Stevens said. “My role is to continue to bring the leadership together so we can continue to discuss the issues that are important to us. I get my marching orders from the decisions of the leadership and this is a key meeting to strategize ways to address these priority issues.”

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The NIGA leadership will also discuss ways to raise the consciousness and knowledge about Indian country of the new legislators in Washington. “I think our number one priority in this area is to bond together to educate new members of Congress and stay connected to the folks who understand and have worked with us over the past several years.”

The American Indian Business Network (AIBN), a corporation formed by Stevens and a group of tribal and business leaders in 2008 to promote trade among American Indian tribes and individuals, will play a central role in promoting Indian economies, Stevens said. “AIBN is a key message I want to bring that we have to create change. We have to figure out not only how to build upon our gaming industry but to try to help business leaders, tribal enterprises and tribal leaders wrap themselves around the Indian, U.S. and world economy and help them understand that this economic world is a different place now. And we have to be proactive.” During the conference AIBN will unveil a new state-of-the-art mobile platform developed by NativeBiz that will provide a vast world of information and access to American Indian services and products, casinos, hotels and resorts, tourist attractions, film locations, news, events, deals and promotions, tribal governments, and more. AIBN will host a reception on April 5 from 4:30-6:30 p.m.

The NIGA membership passed resolutions last November regarding the Carcieri decision and Internet gaming and the discussion of these issues will continue, Stevens said. The 2009 Carcieri decision, in which a majority of Supreme Court judges ruled that the Interior Secretary does not have the authority to take land into trust for tribes that were not “under federal jurisdiction” at the time of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), has virtually frozen land into trust applications at Interior. NIGA’s Carcieri resolution supports the immediate reversal of “the wrongly decided Carcieri case” by passing legislation to amend the IRA to reaffirm the secretary’s authority to take land into trust for Indian tribes.

NIGA’s Internet gaming resolution is more nuanced. Last year, the membership was split on whether or not to support Internet gaming. NIGA’s resolution neither supports nor opposes Internet gaming, but insists that any legislation must incorporate fundamental principles respecting Indian sovereignty, among them that tribal revenues must not be taxed, tribal-state gaming compacts and the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act must be respected, and that the tribal governments’ sovereign rights to operate, regulate, tax and license Internet gaming must not be subordinated to any non-federal authority.

This year’s NIGA conference has the added excitement of elections for three officers – chairman, treasurer, and secretary. And, of course, the chairman’s race will generate the most buzz.

Stevens, who has led NIGA for 10 years, is being challenged by Ivan Makil, the former president of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community of Arizona. Global Gaming Business(GGB) interviewed both candidates in depth. Stevens told GGB his top accomplishments are the defense of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), “consensus and coalition building in Indian Country, the empowerment of tribal leaders through government-to-government consultations with the U.S. Congress, and the establishment of NIGA’s Annual Legislative Summits.” He advocated for educating the public and policymakers about overcoming challenges that Indian communities and Indian gaming face. He also stressed the significance of economic diversification and Indian businesses helping each other.

Makil talked about his success in turning the Salt River tribal government into a “nationally recognized model for successful business enterprises, land use planning and overall economic development that is creative, diversified and culturally sensitive.” He cited priority issues as “Internet gaming, Carcieri, and the misperceptions about tribes and Indian gaming. My priority would be to bring about clarity and understanding regarding these critical issues, build consensus amongst the tribes, and develop a strategic plan with a clear process for implementation. I think it is also important to consider an updated education and public awareness campaign regarding tribes and gaming issues.”

Stevens seems to be taking the election in stride. “My view is that everybody has the right to run and having an election creates buzz and excitement. I think that’s a good thing,” he said. “The elections are obviously important but when all is said and done, the leadership will come out of the conference with a position to strengthen Indian country and lead us in the direction to sustain that strength and grow. That will be the strongest voice we have to continue the dialogues we’ve had around all these issues,” Stevens said.