IGA Report: Protecting Tribal Sovereignty – Exercising Our Power at the Polls

by Ernest L. Stevens, Jr.

In August, the Indian Gaming Association (IGA) met at the beautiful Santa Ana Star Casino and Hotel to reflect on our accomplishments, discuss our recent achievements and the challenges ahead, and plan a path forward this fall with critical elections looming. Tribal sovereignty is, unfortunately, again facing many obstacles, given recent decisions at the Supreme Court and District Court levels. I would like to highlight these challenges and make an urgent appeal to appreciate the extremely valuable role that tribal leadership plays in Washington D.C.

In our meeting with leadership from the Pueblos, Jicarilla and Mescalero Apache, and other tribes from other areas, we discussed preparations for the upcoming busy fall schedule and Indian Country agenda. The leadership and voices in the meeting were resounding. We have a lot of work to do to finish out this congress and reach our goals in the new year.

It was crystal clear in our meeting that these tribes and Pueblos of New Mexico maintain a vigilant fight against COVID-19. They continue to follow many safety protocols to keep their communities safe even today. This is emblematic of tribes across the country. Thanks to the early coordinated work of tribal leaders, Indian gaming regulators, and our tribal health and safety front-line employees, we are seeing signs that the COVID-19 pandemic is losing its grip on our communities. Your coordinated efforts helped limit the health and economic impacts on the Indian gaming industry. To protect our communities and visitors, tribal leaders closed operations for a significant time in 2020, and Indian gaming revenues suffered a 20 percent decrease to $27.8 billion.

As announced in Oklahoma during the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association Tradeshow, your innovation, world-class regulation, and focus on public health helped strengthen trust and confidence with our visitors, led to a post-pandemic resurgence in our industry. Indian gaming revenues topped $39 billion in 2021: an increase of 40 percent over 2020 and more than 13 percent over the record revenues generated in 2019. The Indian gaming industry’s comeback is a resounding affirmation of Indian Country’s resilience and the safety-first approach taken by tribal leadership nationwide.

There can be no doubt that the state of the Indian gaming industry is strong and growing stronger. But we cannot rest. We know more must be done to improve federal policy, strengthen tribal sovereignty, and increase opportunities for all Native communities. During the first 18 months of the Biden Administration, we have done just that.

Working together, we made significant policy gains during the 117th Congress. Congress delivered historic levels of investments to Native Nations through the American Rescue Plan and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act. Unlike the Recovery Act of 2009, the ARP and the Infrastructure Act respect tribal sovereignty and the status of Indian tribes as separate distinct governments by delivering resources directly to Native Nations.

The American Rescue Plan truly kickstarted the health and economic recovery of Indian Country. The Act provided $20 billion in Fiscal Recovery Funds directly to tribal governments. The plan provided significant resources to Indian health care systems, tribal housing, education, and other critical services.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Act is delivering $13 billion to help Native Nations rebuild our water systems, broadband, cybersecurity, roads and much more. These resources will help address the infrastructure shortfalls that contributed to spreading the virus in Native communities.

All told, Indian Country received over $30 billion during the pandemic to help ensure our reservation economies would survive during the worst of COVID. Thank you to our partners, sister organizations, colleagues, lawyer lobby firms, and most importantly, the tribal governments and leaders that represent them.

Another long-awaited policy victory for Indian Country came earlier this year with the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. VAWA 2022 reaffirms tribal sovereignty in our continued effort to overturn the misguided Oliphant decision. The strong bipartisan support for the VAWA reauthorization will go far in addressing the tragic crisis of missing and murdered Native people while also improving public safety and justice in our communities.

These policy victories for Indian Country were made possible because we remained united. We organized. And we turned out the vote in November 2020. This historic vote on VAWA 2022 serves as a guide. It reveals those in Congress who understand tribal sovereignty and those who do not. I highlight VAWA because, while we are making progress in Congress, we are facing unprecedented attacks in the federal courts.

We saw this in the Castro-Huerta case. On June 29, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta, ignored two centuries of precedent by granting state courts jurisdiction over crimes committed by non-Indians in Indian Country. For two hundred years, courts followed the principle that states have no power on Indian Country unless Congress authorizes it. The Supreme Court turned this foundational principle on its head.

We are working with our champions in Congress to address this dangerous decision, but we are also keeping an eye on two upcoming cases – Brackeen and Maverick Gaming – that attack the very core of tribal sovereignty. This fall, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in the Brackeen case. In this case, states and adoption agencies are attacking the Indian Child Welfare Act, falsely claiming that the law is illegally based on race and ancestry. The case is a direct attack on tribal governments and the Indian Child Welfare Act, which has worked to protect Indian families and Native children.

A similar case, Maverick Gaming, LLC v. United States, involves a commercial cardroom in the State of Washington, which claims that the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act is based on “race and ancestry.” The same law firm seeking to overturn ICWA is representing Maverick Gaming in this case. They make the same argument, this time lodging a direct attack on the Indian gaming industry. I want to applaud the Shoalwater Bay Indian Community who has now applied to intervene in this case.

While not grounded in law or fact, we take this challenge head-on because of what’s at stake. For fifty years, more than 240 tribal governments have used Indian gaming to revive our communities. Indian gaming generates more than 300,000 jobs on Indian lands annually. Our operations serve as economic anchors for community development and entrepreneurship. Revenues generated from Indian gaming have worked to rebuild basic infrastructure and enhance the delivery of health, education, and public safety services to Indian Country. Moreover, the tremendous revenue offshoot of our Indian gaming industry has contributed significantly to the overall
economic and employment growth in the U.S.

All of Indian Country is united in denouncing these lawsuits as dangerous and destructive. These attacks serve to highlight the importance of the upcoming midterm elections. Our vote is our voice and our power.

The Indian Gaming Association’s “My Vote Will Count” campaign is partnering with our Member Tribes and sister organizations to educate, empower, and encourage all of Indian Country to register and commit to making a plan to vote. The My Vote Will Count campaign has stops planned throughout Indian Country in the coming months.

We know that Native youth are the key to unlocking the full potential of our vote. We are recruiting young men and women warriors to serve as ambassadors to organize their communities and educate everyone about the importance of their vote.

Exercising our voting rights not only empowers our people and advances our future, but it also serves to honor the sacrifices of our ancestors who fought to protect tribal sovereignty and our way of life.

Your vote will ensure that we send people to Congress who will work with Indian Country to protect tribal sovereignty and put judges on the federal bench who understand federal Indian law.

Our power at the polls will determine whose voices will guide Congress for the next two years. Indian Country’s vote will count. We can, and we will make a difference.

Now more than ever, we must continue to stand united at the front lines of our tribal communities and at our Nation’s capital on behalf of the people we serve. Indian Country’s unified strength protected our communities and led to a resurgence of our industry. We must now stand together in the face of direct threats to our very way of life by showing up at the polls this November. Simply put, the election this year is about protecting Indian families and the very future of tribal sovereignty.

Ernest L. Stevens, Jr. is Chairman of the Indian Gaming Association. He can be reached by calling (202) 546-7711 or visit www.indiangaming.org.