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NIGA honors past and present leaders

SAN DIEGO – The National Indian Gaming Association honored outstanding Indian leaders of the past and present at the annual Indian Gaming Trade Show & Convention.

The event took place at the San Diego Convention Center April 6 – 9. More than 5,200 people – one of the highest attendances ever – traveled from all over the country to take part in the membership meetings, workshops, presentations, and special luncheon and banquet where Indian leaders were celebrated.

NIGA, established in 1985, is a nonprofit organization of 184 Indian nations with other non-voting associate members representing organizations, tribes and businesses engaged in tribal gaming enterprises from around the country. NIGA’s goal is to advance the lives of Indian peoples economically, socially and politically.

The association’s highest award is the Wendell Chino Humanitarian Award, named to honor the late iconic, nationally-recognized Mescalero Apache leader, who is known as the “Father of Indian Casinos.” Chino was instrumental in establishing one of the earliest Indian casinos in 1975 by asserting that the state of New Mexico could not outlaw gaming on sovereign tribal land.

The award is given to tribal leaders whose actions have improved the lives of citizens in Indian country.

This year the award was presented to Chickasaw Governor Bill Anoatubby at a banquet April 8.

Anoatubby has served as Chickasaw governor since 1987, and has taken his nation from poverty to prosperity. The number of nation employees has grown from around 250 in 1987 to more than 10,500 people now working in diverse enterprises, including Bank2, Bedre Chocolates, KADA and KYKC radio stations and the McSwain Theatre, several gaming centers, travel plazas and tobacco stores.

Indian gaming leaders honored at National Indian Gaming Association convention The National Indian Gaming Association honored some of the early leaders in the Indian gaming industry during the Chairman’s Leadership Awards Luncheon at the association’s annual Indian Gaming Trade Show & Convention.

NIGA Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr. established the Chairman’s Leadership Awards eight years ago after making a commitment to recognize outstanding service by individual leaders in gaming and business development. “The Chairman’s Leadership Award Luncheon has evolved into a great event.” Stevens presented awards to the following leaders: Stanley R. Crooks, chairman of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, received the Chairman’s Leadership Award and a beautifully decorated buffalo robe. Crooks, who presented the keynote address during the awards ceremony, said NIGA was instrumental in fighting anti-Indian gaming legislation and helping to make Indian gaming the driving the engine of economic development for the nations. He also announced a $100,000 gift of support from the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community to NIGA. Crooks also presented a donation of $150,000 to the Native American Boys and Girls Clubs from the community. Dave Anderson, Choctaw and Ojibwe, received the Chairman’s Entrepreneur of the Year Award. He is the founder of the NASDAQ-traded restaurant chain Famous Dave’s of America. Anderson accepted the award on behalf of the early employees of the gaming industry, including the bingo hall managers, assistant managers and security staff in the early days of Indian gaming. “If they hadn’t risked their lives and their careers we wouldn’t be here.” Stan Jones, 83, who served as chairman of the Tulalip Tribes for 44 years, received the Chairman’s Lifetime Achievement Award for outstanding service to Indian communities. Jones, a World War II veteran, was appointed chairman of the first Indian gaming task force assembled in the late 1980s by the U.S. Interior Department. “We traveled all across Indian country letting the tribes know the benefits of gaming.” Rick Hill, chairman of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, received the Chairman’s Leadership Award. Hill recalled that 49 of 50 governors were fighting Indian gaming and Congress was considering legislation that would devastate Indian country. But in a strong showing of solidarity, 100 chiefs appeared in Washington to testify at a hearing, and asserted the primacy of tribal sovereignty and the urgent economic needs of Indian country. “Chairman Crooks quietly gave us the money to run operations and start the organization (NIGA) as we see it today. I think for the future you will accomplish the mission of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which is to build strong tribal governments, economic development and self-sufficiency.” Kurt BlueDog, Sisseton-Wahpeton, received the Chairman’s Sovereignty Award from Stevens. Bluedog is the longest serving board member on NIGA’s executive committee. He is an attorney in Minnesota and the Chief Judge of the Fond du Lac Reservation Tribal Court.

In receiving the award, Anoatubby was self-effacing, stating that he accepted the award in honor of the “people who work every day in the trenches because they earned this award, not me.”

NIGA Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr. praised Anoatubby for his astute decision-making.

“Governor Anoatubby will be remembered by future generations for building the modern economy of the Chickasaw Nation.” Speaking directly to Anoatubby, he said, “For your diplomacy, your leadership and for all you do for the Chickasaw Nation, and for Indian country, we award you the Wendell Chino Humanitarian Award.”

Attendees at the packed banquet gave Anoatubby a standing ovation.

“The only way I can express my appreciation for Wendell Chino is to try to emulate him,” Anoatubby said.

The first S. Tim Wapato Sovereign Warrior Award was presented this year posthumously to Mississippi Choctaw Chief Phillip Martin, who passed away in February.

Wapato, who died in April 2009, was a citizen of the Wenatchee Band of the Colville Confederated Tribes in Washington state. He retired from the Los Angeles Police Department in 1979 and went on to be the executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, and in 1989 he was appointed commissioner of the Administration for Native Americans.

When Wapato died last year, Stevens vowed that NIGA would honor his memory with the Tim Wapato Sovereign Warrior Award to be given to those who continue the fight to which Wapato dedicated his life.

“Tim helped me like so many other people,” Stevens said. “He was a visionary who lived by the rule that Indian country came first and foremost. He was a tireless advocate for tribal sovereignty.”

Wapato served as NIGA executive director as tribal casinos began to flourish and was nationally respected as a leader and strong force for sovereignty in the nation’s capitol.

Wapato and his wife Gay Kingman, a citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux in South Dakota, were instrumental in creating NIGA, working at their kitchen table in the early years before the organization grew and established an office and organizational structure.

“When we started it, we didn’t have anything, but the tribes were supportive. If it hadn’t been for the closeness of the tribes and all the people who worked for the tribes, we couldn’t have succeeded,” said Kingman, who helped select Martin as the first recipient of the award named in honor of her husband.

“Tim Wapato was a great, kind leader,” said NIGA Executive Director Mark Van Norman. “He established a blueprint for NIGA. Wapato means the root. I guess he planted the root of the tree that has followed.”

Wapato and Martin had known each other since the early ’90s when Wapato was NIGA’s executive director.

“Chief Phillip Martin is known for bringing prosperity to the Choctaw of Mississippi,” Kingman said. “In the early days of Indian gaming, Chief Martin was with us in fighting for our sovereignty and our right to game.”

Martin served in public office for 45 years and as the Choctaw’s democratically-elected tribal chief for 28 years. He was universally respected as a man of honor and vision, not only among Choctaw citizens but also in the surrounding communities and among government officials. His death elicited an outpouring of sadness and praise.

He was first elected to the tribal council in 1957 and served for 10 years as its chairman until his election as tribal chief in 1979.

Martin aimed to bring the Choctaw people out of poverty by focusing on economic development and self-determination. He established more than a dozen tribally-owned enterprises, diversified the tribe’s economy and created more than 9,000 jobs. Under Martin’s tenure, the nation built an 80-acre industrial park, a tribally-owned construction company, several public service enterprises, the Silver Star Hotel and Casino, the Golden Moon, Geyser Falls Water Theme Park and Dancing Rabbit Golf Club.

Martin told his life story in “Chief: The Autobiography of Phillip Martin, Longtime Tribal Leader, Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians,” published in 2009.

“I felt compelled to recount the major events of my life because I believe I owe it to the Choctaw people, especially the young and those yet to be born,” Martin said.

“I want them to know how difficult life was before we as a people began to prosper again in the mid-20th century, following a 150-year period of suppression and tribal dissolution after the Trail of Tears in 1830. I want them to realize that earning a living was not always easy for their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. The Mississippi Choctaws’ valuable legacy is to be cherished, and is one worthy of being preserved, protected and told.”