Skip to main content

Protecting Sovereignty

  • Author:
  • Updated:

About 24 years ago, Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in response to our victory in the Cabazon case before the U.S. Supreme Court. We suddenly had a vehicle by which to perhaps find peace and security for our people. The IGRA is in effect another treaty with the U.S. government, one that the U.S. government and the states did not particularly want but one that was necessary if they were somehow to control and profit from the results of the Cabazon victory.

In the IGRA, Tribes agreed to compromise their sovereignty by requiring agreements ("compacts") with the states for Class III gaming—states that have no obligation to act in good faith. The very states that historically have coveted Tribal land and resources and have not afforded the Tribes even basic justice. States that now believe they are entitled to a limitless share of our resources.

Tribal governmental gaming has brought prosperity and self-sufficiency to many Tribes. The tremendous and rapid success of gaming has also engendered resentment and jealousy. The states are again hovering, using any rationale to extort money from us and to chip away at our sovereignty. By denying us our land and approving historically unfair compacts the U.S. government is in partnership with the states, not acting as the trustee of our interests.

There is a growing theory that by signing a "negotiated" compact we have also waived our sovereignty and must submit to state rules, laws and oversight. This is not only wrong, it actually is another broken promise—and it is dangerous.

As our resources have become more abundant and more visible, the desire for control over them has grown. Our grandfathers well understood that each time a new promise was held out another was about to be broken. Inevitably, the new promises proved as false as the old ones.

The balance with the states that was embodied in the IGRA compromise (good faith negotiations) has been lost and yet no action has been taken to restore this balance because it would disadvantage the states. This is yet another broken promise.

For the present, our peace and security are tied to gambling - like it or not. Gambling by its nature allows for use of polarizing political attacks. It is clear that tactics built on the politics of divide and conquer will continue to grow. Such as:

•Divide the Tribes so that we appear divided and cannot speak with one voice. The cleverly framed argument about “off reservation” gaming, and the misguided criteria for taking land into trust are designed to divide us and thereby give more political room for taking no action or for cynical proposals to forever banish landless Tribes to economic oblivion.

•Use public proposals designed to take advantage of polarizing statements or slogans to drive our friends and supporters into hiding – such as telling us we need to pay our “fair share” (which translates into give us your money or else).

•Call for amendments to the IGRA to give the federal government more regulatory authority over Class III gaming and to give "protection" to creditors. These are just two of several plans to attack Tribal sovereignty under the guise of paternalistic federal action to better regulate Tribal governmental gaming.

•Put forward proposals for Internet gaming that will harm Tribes. Insult the Tribes by completely ignoring the 20-plus years of Tribal regulation of gaming by only recognizing non-Tribal regulators as acceptable. This leaves Tribes having to fight for a place at the table. It looks like the compromises made in IGRA regarding regulation of gaming and the need for compacts are about to made meaningless. Another broken promise.

With all of the above in mind, it must be said that to think the attacks driven by the desire for Tribal resources will stop short of taking everything, ignores lessons from our history.

Joe Valandra, Sicangu Lakota, is principal owner and president of VAdvisors, LLC, chairman and CEO of Tehan Woglake, Inc., and former chief of staff of the National Indian Gaming Commission.