IGA’s Stevens urges President Biden to fill vacant National Indian Gaming Commission chair

April 14, 2024 3:34 PM
Photo: Ernie Stevens, Chairman and national spokesperson for IGA/CDC Gaming Reports
  • Buck Wargo, CDC Gaming Reports
April 14, 2024 3:34 PM
  • Buck Wargo, CDC Gaming Reports

Indian Gaming Association Chairman Ernie Stevens, Jr., urged the Biden Administration to quickly fill the vacant chair position on the National Indian Gaming Commission, saying delays are holding up important business.

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Stevens, who made the comments as part of an interview on the floor at the IGA Tradeshow & Convention last week in Anaheim, also said he will seek another term.

The departure and replacement of E. Sequoyah Simermeyer, who resigned as chair in late February and took a position with FanDuel, were a big topic of discussion among the association leadership at the conference, Stevens said.

The NIGC chair is appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The two other members of the commission are appointed by the Secretary of the Interior.

Jeannie Hovland, a member of the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe of South Dakota, has served as vice chair of the NIGC. On March 25, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced the proposed reappointment of Hovland and the appointment of Sharon Avery, a member of the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe of Michigan. Only two members can be from the same political party.

The NIGC was created in 1988 with the passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, enacted to support and promote tribal economic development, self-sufficiency, and strong governments through the operation of gaming on Indian lands.

“We’ve been trying to get the Biden Administration to move swiftly on this,” Stevens said. “For the last year, we’ve seen this coming. We lobbied then and are lobbying now. We continue to be respectful in our dialogue, but we’ve been constantly pounding away at it. We need active commissioners.

“To only have one is very difficult for us and the process. It’s hard to get anything done. Tribal gaming is a fast-moving process and we all have these background checks and land acquisitions. We’re in a funk, because it holds the process up.”

Without naming them, Stevens said a couple of candidates have “their names out there,” but he’s not actively lobbying for any particular individuals. He may, however, send a letter of recommendation if someone asks him to do so.

“I want them to appoint somebody,” Stevens said. “I’m okay with a man or a woman. I want them to be educated and prefer they’re Native American and understand tribal gaming and economic development and know the background. A whole bunch of people have been educated in that manner. Years ago, we had to get some help, but almost 40 years later, we’re the experts. There are plenty of people out there to do the job.”

Stevens, a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, said he has no interest in taking the federal-government position. “I work for the tribes and I’ll work for the tribes until I retire,” Stevens said.

Stevens plans to seek re-election next year when his two-year term expires.

“I’m 64 years old and I promise you, I won’t be in this office when I’m 70. I’ve been in this capacity for 23 years. Other people want to do my job and all kinds of people are capable of doing it. It requires dedication and commitment and travel.”

Stevens said he lives in the shadow of his father, Ernie Stevens, Sr., 91, who served as first vice president of the National Congress of American Indians and the first staff director for the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs. His dad advocated for sovereignty, self-determination, self-governance, and Native rights for nearly half a century. Serving with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Stevens was integral to changing the course of Indian policy from an era of termination to tribal self-determination, according to the Native American Hall of Fame.

Stevens called his dad an “iconic” figure who made a difference when it came to economic development and self-sufficiency for tribes. “My father did this in the 1960s and 1970s in the Nixon administration and he didn’t have a cell phone or a fax machine, but he got it done. I passed him up on air miles many years ago, but the success he had in his day, I still see that as an uphill battle. I have to do what I can to help the tribes.”

Stevens said the expansion of sports betting continues to be a top issue that the tribes will deal with over the next year. Along with igaming, that will continue to be an issue going forward and the states will have to work with the tribes.

A lot of interest at the convention centered on the Department of Interior’s new compacting rules that put tribes on an equal footing with commercial online operators. The rules essentially endorse what’s happening in Florida between the Seminole Tribe and the state, in which the tribe gets a monopoly on online sports betting off the reservation. Stevens said the Department of Interior is trying to get it right.

“I see that moving forward,” he said about potential sports betting and igaming expansion in states. “IGRA says we have a right to take advantage of modern technology. When tribes have a particular opportunity, people think that’s an Indian thing. It’s not. We’re governments.”

The $43 billion tribal gaming industry is “thriving” and when factoring in other aspects of properties, it’s a $48 billion industry, Stevens said.

Tribes are willing to work with anyone, but not with those who are trying to use their money to call the shots, Stevens said. He still worries about pending court cases to take away tribal sovereignty and rights to gaming.

“We will continue to take on anyone who fails to understand the true definition of tribal government,” Stevens said. “We’re governments and were doing economic development long before there was a United States of America.”