Raving NEXT: Attacks on tribal sovereignty are coming from all directions

February 13, 2024 11:07 AM
  • Mark Gruetze, CDC Gaming Reports
February 13, 2024 11:07 AM
  • Mark Gruetze, CDC Gaming Reports

Tribal rights, ranging from catching a fish for supper to operating casinos that fund education and health care, are under constant assault, according to panelists at the recent Raving Next conference.

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“Attacks on tribes and tribal sovereignty are coming from all directions, not just on the gaming front,” said David Z. Bean, vice chairman of the Indian Gaming Association.

For example, in Oklahoma, tribes and Gov. Kevin Stitt have clashed over casino revenue and motor-vehicle tags. Maverick Gaming, which owns more than 300 commercial cardrooms in Washington and nearby states, is seeking to overturn the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act as unconstitutionally race-based. In several areas, tribes’ ability to issue fishing and hunting licenses on their land is being contested.

Even with major U.S. Supreme Court rulings in 2020 and 2023 that upheld tribal rights, “The fight is not over. We’re still defending ourselves at all times,” said Lael Echo-Hawk, principal at MThirtySix, a tribal-advocacy law firm in Washington, D.C.

Joe Deere, a member of the Cherokee Nation Tribal Council and Eastern Region vice president of the National Council of American Indians, warned of groups claiming to be separate tribes, such as one that called itself “Chero-Creek,” for a combination of the recognized Cherokee and Creek tribes.

The three spoke at a Jan. 31 panel discussion titled “Preserving Tribal Sovereignty and Thriving Amidst Challenges: Strategic Responses to Competition and Threat” during the Raving Next Indian Gaming Strategic Operations and Leadership Development Conference at Choctaw Casino & Resort in Durant, Oklahoma.

Moderator Rosina Depoe, deputy director of the Washington Indian Gaming Association, said Maverick’s lawsuit challenges all Native Americans. “It implies that we’re all the same, that we don’t have different cultures, we don’t have different languages, we don’t come from different areas.”

Echo-Hawk said the concept of sovereignty can be difficult to grasp, but basically it means tribes’ ability to govern their people and lands. “That’s all that Indian Country has been asking for since 1492.” She said many cases boil down to how tribes can protect their children, income streams, communities, and jobs.

Dean said tribes have always had to fight to protect their lands, pointing to the resolve of Billy Frank Jr., a chief of the Nisqually tribe in Washington, who was instrumental in the 1974 Boldt decision that tribes weren’t subject to state fishing regulations. Dean said Frank emphasized the need for tribes to “tell your story” to a wide swath of people.

“We have to educate these lawmakers,” he continued. “We create alliances with our neighboring communities and businesses, grow our economy, send our kids off to school, and diversify our economies.” As part of that effort, the Indian Gaming Association and the National Congress of American Indians last year reactivated their joint Tribal Leaders Task Force to fend off threats to tribal sovereignty and treaty rights.

Depoe said leaders should emphasize that “tribal gaming is government gaming,” because it supports such critical services as law enforcement and education on Native lands. “Remind people how important it is and what gaming is doing for our tribal communities.”

Deer said he talks with his grandchildren about the importance of tribal sovereignty. “I tell them we’ve always been here and we have to maintain our sovereignty and protect it, because that’s why we live the way we live.”

Dean said non-Native workers at tribal casinos generally welcome learning Indian heritage and sovereignty. He once worked at a casino that sponsored monthly drum circles for all employees, who participated in Native singalongs and dances. “We had folks telling stories, the same way that we were taught growing up. Within the stories are lessons. Share those stories with your staff. Get them involved.

“We have to continue to tell our story.”