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NIGA’s Ernie Stevens Jr.: ‘We Accept the Challenge’

LAS VEGAS — National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA) Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr. sat down with Indian Country Today Media Network during the Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas in early October to talk about tribal governmental gaming in the troubled economy and what’s ahead. Prior to the interview, Stevens told a crowd at the NIGA booth that last year, Indian gaming interests made up 45 percent of the massive international gaming expo, which draws more than 25,000 people each year. “We are on the front line in Indian country. We are now the experts. We are the ones getting it done and everything we do, we do for our communities, for our family and our culture and our traditions.” He talked with pride about his 101-year-old grandmother, a citizen of the Oneida Indian Tribe of Wisconsin. “My grandmother, who never asked for anything, who retired as a school teacher at the age of 93, who was educated and stood up against the boarding school system and survived it, and who still tells us what to do, lives in her apartment with government support to help her. And she waits for that bus that takes her down to Wal-Mart so she can get her hair done every week. She’s a proud, proud victor and Indian tribal gaming is taking care of that elder every day.”

ICTMN: The National Indian Gaming Commission’s statistics for 2010 show Indian gaming revenues remained stable at $26.5 billion last year despite the bad economy. What does that say about Indian gaming?

Ernie Stevens: From my heart, it boils down to what we’ve been talking about all along, which is we’re responsible to our communities so we accept this challenge as a much bigger issue and approach it much more diligently and proactively. Business people don’t really look at things from the point of view of government responsibility or from a seven generations mentality. So while we’re trying to analyze our way through this economic downturn and survive, we know we’re dealing with our future and that’s why it’s so important. Historically, we’ve always had to figure out how to survive on little or nothing, how to make ends meet, so cutting budgets, analyzing our industry needs – those are things we’ve done in trying to move our governments forward. We can’t be reckless. Those are key things that are helping us survive.

ICTMN: What about the non gaming tribes?

ES: Some folks in Indian country are having a very hard time and that offsets the statistics of the tribes that are doing well. Our key frustration and concern is for those who are struggling and how can we help them out of that? I think the people who thought this economy was going to be a little dip and then get better made a mistake. I’m not an economist – I have a degree in criminal justice – but my study of this tells me we have to grin and bear it and work our way through it.

ICTMN: There are predictions of worse to come and a double dip recession on the horizon. Should casino nations prepare for that, and if so, how?

ES: I think we’ll learn to deal with it on a longer term. We understand that it’s not about whether our numbers going up and down; it’s not that simple. Every setback we suffer, our community suffers so we have to understand what the challenges are. It’s an experience that we have to share and analyze together whether it’s the American Indian Business Network or panels such as the ones presented here.

ICTMN: What is going on in terms of the tribes that are not doing so well, and are there legislative hurdles that Indian gaming has to overcome?

ES: We’re having them network among each other and creating an environment where they’re talking to each other about their challenges and what they’re doing to work their way out of this thing. I don’t really want to wrap the issue around legislation. I think it’s about economic development. I know a lot of people think Internet gaming is going to solve our financial crisis not just in Indian gaming but elsewhere, but I think anyone looking for a quick fix is making a big mistake. I think maintenance, planning and working together is what we have to do. We have to look at other forms of business, other economic opportunities and other ways of doing business. That’s what we’re trying to promote with the American Indian Business Network.

ICTMN: Do you think Indian gaming has plateau’d?

ES: Has it reached saturation? No, I don’t think so. Walk down the strip – there’s are tons of people here, you can’t even drive a car through, it’s nuts!

ICTMN: But this is Las Vegas. . .

ES: But in our world, if you like bingo or slot machines or just hanging out in the cigar bar or watching the big screen or splurging on a stay overnight in a hotel and doing some site seeing – that’s kind of where Indian country’s niche is. When you come to Indian country it’s more of a family environment, it’s a slower pace but it’s just as much fun. So maybe people spend less, but they’re still showing up. Indian gaming is still at the top of the list in terms of funding tribal governments.

ICTMN: But you agree that tribes should diversity?

ES: Yes, but I’m not a proponent of diversity because the end is near or the market is saturated or we have to solve the gaming ‘crisis.’ I don’t believe that. Those are doom and gloom scenarios. Indian tribes have gamed since long before there was a United States and we’ll continue to game and as long as I’m around we’ll do more gaming. My philosophy is we’re building a future. Every day we have more members and more challenges and we still have a lot of tribes that don’t have casinos or markets or opportunities, so tribes with resources can help create businesses and other industries to help those tribes without casinos or whose casinos are just about maintaining jobs for their members. But it’s important for us to have other options when we have this kind of economy so we can continue to provide for the basic needs of our tribal communities.

ICTMN: NIGA’s resolution of principles regarding Indian gaming is very cautious.

ES: There are elements in the existing bills that are not fair to the basic principle of tribal sovereignty. We stand firm: If they write a bill that doesn’t include what tribal leaders have asked for, we’re going to fight them tooth and nail. We believe we have the right to be at the forefront. We’ve educated the tribes about this and anyone who thinks the tribes don’t know or are not prepared is wrong. There has to be an even playing field. We’ve already had to make significant adjustments when the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was written and to try to dilute that at this point is totally unfair.

ICTMN: Is NIGA still opposed to opening IGRA for amendments?

ES: Staunchly opposed. It’s absolutely imperative -- and I’ve advocated this to all the tribal leaders—to be ready and engaged in understanding and educating each other about this Internet gaming industry. I guarantee you, the leadership in Indian country understands the potential. We take it seriously and we’re ready to deal with it.