IN FOCUS: Origins of Native American gaming

Digital First

OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – Gambling is a billion-dollar industry for Native American tribes in Oklahoma, but once upon a time, it was more of a modest recreation.

Oklahoma’s Indian tribes have been embroiled in a legal battle with Gov. Kevin Stitt over tribal gaming compacts.

The Cherokee, Chickasaw and Choctaw nations filed a federal lawsuit on Dec. 31, 2019, “to bring an end to the uncertainty Oklahoma Governor J. Kevin Stitt has attempted to cast over Tribal gaming operations.”

Stitt asserts that the 15-year gaming compact between the state and the tribes was set to expire in January 2020. He sent a letter to 35 tribal leaders saying the time had come to renegotiate the agreement that gives tribes exclusive Class III gaming rights in the state.

The tribes earn about $4.5 billion a year from casino-style gaming in Oklahoma. Anywhere from four to 10 percent of that revenue goes back to the state.

The tribes contend the compact automatically renews if new agreements aren’t reached, and their lawsuit seeks a judicial declaration that the gaming compacts renew.

And a federal court agreed.

The United States District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma, on July 28, ruled that the compacts automatically renewed on Jan. 1, 2020.

“For these reasons, the Court finds that Plaintiffs’ and Intervenors’ Compacts with the State of Oklahoma automatically renewed for an additional 15-year term on January 1, 2020, by operation of the unambiguous terms of Part 15(B),” the ruling stated.

Long before the recent dispute between the state and the tribes, Indian gaming was a more simple affair.

“Native Americans generally love to gamble,” said Gary Clayton Anderson, a University of Oklahoma professor who teaches American Indian History. “Gaming was a very common element in Native American history. All tribes had considerable gambling.”

Bingo is the earliest form of tribal gaming as a business in the United States, Anderson said.

Bingo is the first type of gaming that Native American tribes turned into a business.

The National Indian Gaming Commission’s history page states that Indian tribes established bingo operations in the 1970s to raise revenue to fund tribal government operations.

“At about that same time, a number of state governments were also exploring the potential for increasing state revenues through state-sponsored gaming. By the mid-1980s, a number of states had authorized charitable gaming, and some states were sponsoring state-operated lotteries,” the Gaming Commission states.

When Nevada became a gambling mecca, pressure mounted to allow Native Americans to run gambling businesses such as casinos, Anderson said.

Tribal and state governments disagreed over tribal gaming.

“The debate centered on the issue of whether tribal governments possessed the authority to conduct gaming independently of state regulation,” the Gaming Commission states.

Numerous lower courts affirmed tribal governments’ contention, and the U.S. Supreme Court – in the 1987 case California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians – “confirmed the inherent authority of tribal governments to establish and regulate gaming operations independent of state regulation, provided that the state in question permits some form of gaming,” according to the Gaming Commission.

Congress conducted a series of hearings on tribal gaming and ultimately passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988.

The Act embodied a compromise between states and tribal governments, established three gaming classes – Class I, Class II and Class III – and accomplished the following:

• Gave state governments the ability to determine the scope and extent of tribal gaming by requiring tribal-state compacts for Class III gaming.
• Preserved full tribal regulatory authority over Class II gaming.
• Provided for general regulatory oversight at the federal level.
• Created the National Indian Gaming Commission to be the primary responsible federal agency.

“It basically says that all states that have Indian tribes that are recognized by the federal government and who have legitimate treaties with the United States that have been passed by the Congress and ratified by the Senate should be allowed to be involved in gaming,” Anderson said.

The jurisdictional framework that was established by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act still governs Indian gaming.

The tribal-ran bingo parlors accelerated into casinos upon the Gaming Regulatory Act’s passage, Anderson said.

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