Van Norman fields questions and talks about Indian gaming
WASHINGTON -- Despite the fact that Indian gaming is a highly regulated
industry that has generally proved beneficial to tribes and their
neighbors, criticism and misunderstanding are still quite prevalent.
Chances to present tribal gaming in a positive light via the mainstream
media come infrequently. Mark Van Norman, executive director of the
National Indian Gaming Association, recently took advantage of one such
On Jan. 3, Van Norman, Cheyenne River Sioux, appeared on "Washington
Journal," a talk show broadcast nationally by the nonprofit C-SPAN
television network. After explaining some of the industry's mechanics and
intricacies, he fielded questions from host Pedro Echevarria and a number
of callers, some of whom questioned the legitimacy of Indian gaming and one
even stooped so low as to attack his heritage.
The Indian gaming community comprises 330 casinos owned by 220 tribes in 28
states. Van Norman said that the net revenues generated by tribally owned
casinos support basic governmental services like health care, education,
police and fire services, and the like. Indian casinos also operate under
three tiers of regulation: tribal, state and federal. Tribes support their
own regulatory agencies, which provide internal audits to the National
Indian Gaming Commission, and collectively pay $55 million annually to fund
Van Norman explained that Indian casinos range in size from very small
operations housed in convenience stores and bingo halls, to two Connecticut
casinos that resemble large-scale Las Vegas operations.
"The difference always is that the money is going to rebuild Indian
communities," he said.
Collectively, tribal casinos in 2004 generated approximately $19 billion in
gross revenue generated by tribal casinos, Van Norman said. Of this money,
overhead expenses -- including capital costs and employment expenses -- eat
up much of these funds, leaving net revenues of around 25 percent. About 20
percent of net funds go to education and further economic development,
while the balance supports other tribal governmental services. Van Norman
said that "concrete results" in terms of governmental growth and community
rebuilding are present throughout Indian country.
A few callers raised concerns about the Abramoff lobbying scandal. One,
from Stevensville, Mont., was appalled to see Republicans and lobbyists
working against tribes and called for an investigation. Another had a more
"I thought this was to help Indian people," said a caller from Oklahoma
City. "Now you're giving millions of dollars to all these politicians --
what happened to the poor old Indian out here?"
Van Norman replied that the Abramoff scandal is an isolated example of
fraud that involved only a handful of tribes, which Abramoff misrepresented
in the same ways as he did with his non-Indian clients. Van Norman added
that most tribes have no representation in Washington, while all 50 states,
of course, are represented.
In response to a call from Shawnee, Okla., Van Norman said that treaties
recognize tribes' sovereign rights to their own land.
"Our people were marginalized and left on the least productive lands," he
said. "Now we're in a situation where we have to create new economies.
That's what we're trying to do through Indian gaming -- rebuild tribal
communities, rebuild tribal economies -- we didn't have a Marshall Plan."
A man from Lewes, Del., questioned Van Norman's ancestry and then insisted
that the "simple truth is that money is being bled from people gambling by
the ones in charge of casinos and the tribal councils."
"That's one person's opinion, but I have a different perspective," Van
Norman replied, offering as an example the Isleta Pueblo in New Mexico. A
dozen years ago, there was not even a laundromat on that reservation, he
said. Today, there's a new police station, a new hospital, a new housing
development and a new Head Start center.
"Tribes are reinvesting capital in their own communities," he said.
Van Norman cited a recent NIGA-sponsored poll showing that 67 percent of
Americans support Indian gaming because they understand that its purpose is
to help tribes.
"We have a lot of ground to make up after two centuries of poverty and
dispossession," Van Norman said. "We've only been at it for 20-some years,
and we're seeing the start of the progress. But as tribes continue to
develop, we're going to see more economic diversification and, really, some
life to the promise that reservations can be viable homelands."
A video of Mark Van Norman's appearance on "Washington Journal" is
available at www.c-span.org -- click on "Washington Journal" under "C-SPAN