G2E: Native leaders decry lawsuits attacking tribal sovereignty

October 11, 2022 7:00 PM

G2E: Native leaders decry lawsuits attacking tribal sovereignty

Photo: The Business of Gaming and Sports Betting in Indian Country/CDC Gaming Reports
  • Mark Gruetze, CDC Gaming Reports
October 11, 2022 7:00 PM
  • Mark Gruetze, CDC Gaming Reports

Sports betting, racial-preference claims, and child-welfare guidelines might seem to have little in common. However, tribal gaming executives see a pernicious link.

Current court cases involving those issues could undermine tribal sovereignty, the right of Native Americans to govern themselves, and that could have enormous effects on everyone across the United States, the leaders say.

In Oklahoma, home to 143 tribal-gaming facilities, tribes contend with a governor seeking to limit their rights and face claims of receiving “preferential treatment,” said Matthew Morgan, chairman of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association.

In California, with 76 tribal casinos, backers of a sports-betting proposition that would open the state to commercial gaming ran ads targeting individual tribes and tribal leaders, said James Siva, vice chairman of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians.

In Washington, with 35 tribal casinos, a federal lawsuit challenging state compacts with tribal operators alleges race-based discrimination and argues that the federal government cannot tell the state how to interact with tribes, said Rebecca George, executive director of the Washington Indian Gaming Association. “We’re seeing the same two arguments being shopped around the country as a direct attack on tribal sovereignty,” she added.

The three spoke Monday at a panel discussion titled “The Business of Gaming and Sports Betting in Indian Country” on the first day of the Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas. Jason Giles, executive director of the Indian Gaming Association (IGA), moderated.

Giles told CDC Gaming Reports that racial-preference challenges targeting Indians have been resurrected within the past five years, despite a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that federal treaties with tribes and references to Indians in the Constitution are not racial, but a recognition of tribal governments.

Morgan said state lawsuits against Oklahoma tribes jumped dramatically after the Supreme Court’s 2020 decision determining that much of Eastern Oklahoma is tribal territory, ceded in 19th century agreements. “Since that time, (Gov. Kevin Stitt) has filed 30-to-40-plus lawsuits, trying to challenge the decision any way they can to obstruct tribal government” in day-to-day business and economic development, Morgan said. Still, tribal leaders work well with government agencies and individual officials at the state, county, and city levels, he added.

Stitt, a Republican, is running for re-election in November. On Monday, the Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes publicly supported his opponent, Joy Hofmeister. Morgan said this was the first political endorsement in the council’s 65-year history. Hofmeister, currently state superintendent of public instruction, switched from Republican to Democrat to run against Stitt.

Morgan said Oklahoma tribes are unlikely to push for new forms of gaming – sports betting or other types – in the near future. He said policymakers need to be realistic about how much revenue sports betting could provide. “They look at the handle and they think that’s the money we’re receiving. I don’t think they understand the economics,” he said. “Tribal leadership is ready to have a conversation, as long as it makes economic sense.”

George said the law firm representing Maverick Gaming, which is challenging Washington State gaming compacts as an example of illegal racial preferences, also represents the plaintiff in a federal case challenging the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, written to protect Indian children from being taken from their homes and placed in distant schools. That lawsuit seeks to allow states, rather than tribes, to decide when to remove Indian children from their homes and families.

Siva said the implications of the challenge to the Indian Child Welfare Act are “terrifying.” “If they can find that ICWA is unconstitutional, that is going to be the first domino in what could be the fall of tribal sovereignty,” he said. “I can’t even get my head around how drastically things could change.”

Speakers said tribes need to publicize how much gaming and other tribal initiatives contribute to the general public. George said Washington tribes worked with a Harvard economist, who received tribal financial data under a nondisclosure agreement. The economist’s report showed tribes are among the top 10 employers in the state and have a $6 billion gross domestic product. Giles said IGA has begun working with the Federal Reserve Board to compile a comparable nationwide report.

“We need to let the country writ large know how great everyone is doing in California and Oklahoma and how we made the country better,” he said. Tribes in aggregate are the nation’s 14th largest employer, he said, and contribute millions of dollars to nontribal governments, while saving the federal government millions more in welfare payments that otherwise would have to be made to reservation residents.

“If you start taking down these foundations,” who’s going to pick up the costs when we can’t afford this anymore?” Giles said. “It’s going to be the taxpayers.”

Mark Gruetze is a veteran journalist from suburban Pittsburgh who covers casino gaming issues and personalities.