by Ernest L. Stevens, Jr.
Over the past two years, our industry has shown outstanding perseverance and resiliency. As we prepare to gather for Annual 2022 Indian Gaming Tradeshow and Convention this month in California, we have much to celebrate and new challenges and opportunities to address to ensure that Indian gaming continues to build forward into our new normal while protecting and strengthening Native communities.
The last couple of years have truly reflected the strength of our industry. From day one of this pandemic, tribal leaders coordinated with public health officials, Indian gaming regulators and operators, and public safety officials to focus on the health and safety of Native communities, our employees, and visitors.
The success of Indian gaming through the worst of this pandemic is also a credit to the creativity and flexibility of so many experts on the ground who have had to constantly adjust to protect the health and safety of our people while also maintaining the highest quality gaming experience.
At the forefront of protecting our gaming industry is the many Indian gaming employees and regulators who stand firm in their commitment to keeping their gaming facilities and visitors safe. By taking all precautions committed to doing everything from taking temperatures to wiping down machines and doing everything possible within their means to build upon the economic growth of our industry.
Thanks to your work, Indian gaming operations far surpassed early projections. We limited the pandemic’s economic impacts in 2020, generating $28 billion in revenue for tribal governments. While we await final numbers for 2021, early reports indicate that Indian gaming revenues will likely surpass the record levels of 2019. The Indian gaming industry’s comeback is a resounding affirmation of the safety-first approach taken by tribal leadership nationwide. We expect even greater industry gains in 2022 with expansions, grand openings, and groundbreakings planned throughout Indian Country.
From a federal policy perspective, in 2021, we continued to build on work with Congress. In the past year, thanks to your outreach, Congress delivered historic levels of investments to Native Nations through the American Rescue Plan (ARP), the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act, and the recently passed FY’23 Funding bill.
The ARP truly kickstarted the health and economic recovery for Indian Country. The Act provided $20 billion in Fiscal Recovery Funds directly to tribal governments. The plan provided significant resources to the Indian health care system, tribal housing, education, and other critical services. Possibly the most important provisions from the ARP were the Biden Administration’s work with tribal leaders to deliver vital vaccines directly to Indian Country’s health care providers.
The Infrastructure Act delivers an additional $11 billion to help Native Nations rebuild our roads, water systems, broadband, cybersecurity, and more.
The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the infrastructure shortfalls throughout Indian Country. Overcrowded homes, substandard health systems, and broken water systems all contributed to spreading the virus in Native communities. As schools closed, the lack of broadband made it impossible for many students to engage in remote learning. The Bipartisan Infrastructure act is more resilient.
And finally, Congress recently enacted the annual spending bill that again increased funding for tribal government programs at the Indian Health Service, BIA, BIE, and other critical programs that deliver services to Native communities.
One significant policy provision included in the Omnibus was the long-awaited reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which builds on the 2013 VAWA Reauthorization – restoring tribal jurisdiction over crimes committed by non-Indians against Native children, assaults on tribal justice personnel, and a broader range of crimes against Native women. The strong bipartisan support for the VAWA reauthorization will go far in addressing the tragic crisis of missing and murdered Native women.
At the same time, 2021 brought challenges and opportunities that our industry will continue to face this year. As we slowly reopened to gather and grow our industry, we did so in the face of incoming COVID variants. While we can hope that new variants will be limited, tribal leaders continue to work with health officials, regulators, and operators to prepare for every potential scenario.
Additional challenges that have stemmed from the pandemic are concerns with recruiting and retaining key employees in certain regions. Indian gaming operators have historically offered some of the best paying jobs in their regions – often providing full health and related fringe benefits. However, the pandemic disrupted employment nationwide. Many employees who were forced to leave during the early months of this crisis have not returned or have found new careers. This challenge is not unique to Indian gaming or even the national gaming industry, but it is an issue that tribes nationwide are working to address.
One issue pre-dating the COVID-19 pandemic, but which has increased in recent years, is the growing threat of cyber-attacks that target weaknesses in our digital security. Tribal governments are answering these threats by investing in cyber protection and establishing cyber defense teams to prevent attacks on operations. Strong cybersecurity limits exposure and is crucial to maintaining the integrity of our operations.
The biggest change to gaming in the U.S. over the past two years has been the rocketing emergence of sports betting. Since the Supreme Court’s Murphy decision in 2017, the industry has viewed sports betting as both a challenge and an opportunity. Tribes nationwide are using existing authority under IGRA to participate in the growing sports betting market. Many more tribal governments are still working through the process as they consider entering the market.
One setback that Indian Country faced was the federal court decision that struck down a compact negotiated between a tribe and state to conduct sports betting that permitted the tribe to accept bets throughout the state. Despite the fact that state law affirmed that the place of mobile wagers accepted by the tribe will take place at the location of the hosting server, the court narrowly read the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act to limit this activity. This is a misguided and narrow interpretation of IGRA that directly conflicts with congressional intent.
As the Biden Administration rightly acknowledged in reviewing this compact, “…other jurisdictions are deeming wagers to occur at a specified location. Multiple states have enacted laws that deem a bet to have occurred at the location of the servers, regardless of where the player is physically located in the state. The compact reflects this modern understanding of how to regulate online gaming.”
Another legal challenge was filed by a commercial cardroom in the State of Washington, claiming that IGRA is unconstitutionally based on “race and ancestry.” While not grounded in law or fact, we take this challenge seriously because of what is at stake. For most of the past half-century, more than 200 Native Nations have utilized Indian gaming to generate governmental revenue to rebuild our communities. Legal challenges that attempt to blur the governmental status of Indian tribes as “racially” based attack the very core of tribal sovereignty.
Our Association has examined Internet gaming and sports betting for two decades. We have built consensus positions backed by our mission to protect and preserve tribal sovereignty and IGRA. Tribal governments must be able to access new technology to participate in the evolving gaming industry. The use of mobile gaming is part of this evolving industry. IGRA did not permit Indian tribes to engage in gaming. Instead, IGRA acknowledged that tribal governments retain the inherent sovereign authority to engage in gaming. IGRA simply codified this right. IGRA should not be an impediment to tribes that seek to modernize their gaming offerings.
While we have so much to celebrate as we prepare to gather for Indian Gaming 2022, we have significant business to discuss with our Member Tribes and partners. The past two years highlighted our resilience and showed what is possible when Indian Country unites behind the common purpose of working together to build a better place for all generations to come. While it seems like this pandemic may be closer to being behind us, we must continue our resolve to do our part to work to defeat it. As a result, Indian Gaming 2022 will continue to follow stringent COVID-protection protocols outlined by the CDC and Orange County in California.
This pandemic will be forever engrained in our stories. Like our ancestors before us, we will share the lessons learned with our future generations, so they are prepared to protect their communities. At the same time, we continue our work to strengthen our communities to guarantee that we are even more resilient to deal with future threats.
As we successfully and safely did twice last year, we will bring our membership to the table to do the work necessary to continue to build our industry. We will honor those who led before as we gather for the Annual 2022 Indian Gaming Tradeshow and Convention April 19-22, 2022, at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, CA. We have a dynamic event planned to include on Wednesday, April 20th, the Chairman’s Leadership Luncheon, where we will honor Chief Oren Lyons, a Faith keeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation in New York. Indian Gaming will also present the annual cultural event where we will present the Rick Hill Tim Wapato Sovereign Warrior Award to former Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians Chairman Anthony Pico.
Finally, my continued prayers go out to those impacted by this pandemic. I pray for the families and communities for those who have walked on, for the continued safety of medical professionals, caregivers, and first responders, and the health, welfare, and safety of their tribal communities.
We look forward to seeing you in California.
Ernest L. Stevens, Jr. is Chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association. He can be reached by calling (202) 546-7711 or visit www.indiangaming.org.