A foe became an ally: Commemorating 30 years of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act

Vincent Schilling

Chaudhuri: "In the last 30 years, IGRA has brought Indian country unprecedented economic development and growth."

At a commemoration event at the Washington D.C. office of the National Indian Gaming Commission, (NIGC) Jonodev Osceola Chaudhuri, the NIGC Chairman, The National Indian Gaming Association Chairman Ernie Stevens, Jr., as well as former commissioners and tribal leaders active in the enterprise of Indian gaming shared their thoughts and reflections on the regulation that changed the face of gaming, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA.)

Former National Indian Gaming commissioners shared their thoughts and reflections on the regulation that changed the face of gaming, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Photo: Vincent Schilling

Thirty years ago, in response to the 1987 landmark court case of California v. Cabazon -- in which the Supreme Court upheld the right of Indian tribes, as governments, to conduct gaming on their lands free from state control or interference -- the passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act came into play, regulating the way Indian Country offered gaming to the nation.

During his opening remarks, Chairman Chaudhuri expressed how the Regulatory Act wasn't welcome at its inception, but grew to being embraced by Indian Country.

"IGRA was the result of a compromise between those who sought significant non-tribal oversight or even the abolishment of Indian gaming and those who supported broad tribal authority flowing from the inherent sovereignty of tribal nations to regulate activities on their lands, as affirmed by the Supreme Court’s decision in Cabazon. While the product of that compromise did curtail tribal sovereignty by creating a role for states in Indian gaming that states previously had never held, critical self-determination principles were preserved in IGRA," he said.

In thirty years, Chaudhuri recognized how far Indian Country had come despite fighting the federal regulations that have arguably sought to stifle its growth.

"In the last 30 years, IGRA has brought Indian country unprecedented economic development and growth. Today, Indian gaming constitutes a 34.2 billion dollar industry that funds a wide range of critical tribal governmental programs and services from language preservation, education, health care, emergency services, justice services and many, many others," said Chaudhuri.

"These programs and services not only ensure the health, safety, and welfare of tribal citizens, but also better the lives of their neighbors. 30 years after its passage, IGRA has created the infrastructure for an industry that has created tens of thousands of well-paying jobs—both for tribal citizens and non-citizens. From our experience implementing IGRA here at the NIGC, IGRA represents one of the most successful federal Indian laws to date."

National Indian Gaming Association Chairman, Ernest Stevens, Jr., and Jonodev Osceola Chaudhuri, the NIGC Chairman share remarks at the 30 year IGRA commemoration event. Photo: Vincent Schilling

In addition to Chairman Chaudhuri's remarks, National Indian Gaming Association Chairman, Ernest Stevens, Jr., also shared his experiences over the years and highlighted how the Regulatory Act had, in the long run, worked to serve to benefit Indian Country.

"Gaming has been a part of Native American culture from the beginning of time, whether it is hand and stick games, bowl and dice games or horse and relay races, gaming has always been a part of our culture, ceremonies, and way of life," said Stevens. "In contemporary times, Indian gaming ranges from full blown Casino Resort Properties to medium and small scale casinos with table games, card rooms and bingo."

"When Indian Gaming began, it was met with legal challenges that eventually led to Congress’ enactment of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988. The Act is far from perfect, however, over 200 tribal governments have made IGRA work for our communities."

In his statements, Stevens highlighted how Indian gaming revenues have strengthened Native communities and helped to restore Native culture and languages and helped maintain tribal self-determination.

Stevens also shared the economic impacts of Indian gaming across the country.

"In 2017, 242 tribal governments operated 494 gaming facilities in 29 states, helping Indian gaming grow to $32.4 billion in direct revenues and $4.8 billion in ancillary revenues for a total of $37.3 billion in total revenues. This represents a 3.9% increase from 2016."

"It’s been said before, but it holds true to this day: Indian gaming is the most successful tool for economic development for many Indian tribes in over two centuries."

Stevens also shared how Indian gaming has delivered over 745,000 American jobs in 2017. He also discussed the expenses held by tribes in maintaining tribal, state, and federal regulations related to gaming.

In 2017, tribes spent approximately $454 million on this legislation to include $341 million to fund tribal government gaming regulatory agencies; $90.5 million to reimburse states for state regulatory activities negotiated and agreed to pursuant to approved tribal-state class III gaming compacts; and $23.4 million to fully fund the operations and activities of the National Indian Gaming Commission.

Chairman Chaudhuri offered additional thoughts at the commemoration and touched on how tribes have often struggled to maintain their own sovereign rights.

Tribal leaders, such as Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, Chairwoman of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head Aquinnah**,** were also invited to ask questions and share thoughts. Photo: Vincent Schilling

"It is no secret that federal law and policy have historically oscillated between two contrasting approaches to Indian affairs. At times, the Federal Government has enacted laws that detracted from or diminished tribal sovereignty and self-determination. For instance, with the passage of the Allotment Acts at the turn of the 19th Century and into the first decade of the 20th, we witnessed a significant diminishment of the inherent right of Tribal Nations to make their own laws and be governed by them," he said.

"Since the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934, Congress—as well as the Executive Branch of the Federal Government—have repeatedly enacted and implemented legislation that upholds the Federal Government’s trust duties and obligations to Tribal Nations and their citizens. In this regard, IGRA reflects the convictions of tribal sovereignty and self-determination advocates—both from within Indian country and the United States Congress. Like the Indian Self Determination Act of 1975, and the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, IGRA’s passage in 1988 reflects a repudiation and rejection of the historic federal laws that diminished tribal lands and sovereignty and abdicated the Federal Government’s trust duties and responsibilities to Tribal Nations. And in the footsteps of the Indian Reorganization Act, an Act that rejected a series of laws that removed tribal lands from Tribal Nations, IGRA sensibly accounts for the diverse histories and land bases of Tribal Nations and thereby does not limit Indian Gaming to a one size fits all reservation proscription," said Chaudhuri.

"Reflecting on the past 30 years of IGRA, and from my perspective after having served as Chairman of the NIGC for just over five years, IGRA’s incredible success is due, in large part, to its focus on tribal self-determination."

For information on the National Indian Gaming Commission, (NIGC) visit their website at

For information on the National Indian Gaming Association, (NIGA) visit their website at

Follow Indian Country Today’s associate editor Vincent Schilling (Akwesasne Mohawk) on Twitter -@VinceSchilling

Email -vschilling@indiancountrytoday.com

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Comments (3)
No. 1-3

In 30 years thanks to POTUS Ronald Reagan signing the Bill to the NIGA in 1988, there are some very "rich" tribal officials of east coast and midwest tribal government "corporations" who are rich in $$$, power, and political influence. This is something that the rest of us 99 percenters who can only spectate on (1 percent equates to 50,000 to 60,000 tribal peoples who don't have to worry of their future - considering they are born into a tribal dynasty). All the while performing under the federal laws of tribal sovereignty, i.e. leave us alone! What a nice gig!


I remember Ernie Stevens when he used to wear just a beaded wood polo, western shirt, a leather vest and blue Jean's and boots.....maybe one day he will get real work.


Missing entirely from this article on the growth of Indian Gaming? Discussion of the illness that has rolled along with it, growing every day and destroying numerous Indian Communities in it's wake--tribal disenrollment. To date, over 12,000 Indian people have had their very birthright stolen from them by corrupt tribal governments primarily in gaming tribes. Until this tribal, civil, and human rights violation is addressed by those who can make a difference--including NIGC-- it will continue to decimate our people to the point of nonexistence. Tribes exist to protect their culture, ancestors, language, traditions and, most of all, people. The federal government has a responsibility to protect the trust responsibility of ALL Indian people--not just corrupt tribal "leaders" who abuse tribal sovereignty to steal the very birthright of tens of thousands of Indian people for their own motives of power and greed. Time to do what is right, and just....for ALL Indian people! #StopDisenrollment #BringOurIndianPeopleHome #WeBelong