Tribal sovereignty is under attack from some commercial- gaming and other interests and tribes must band together to protect their position.
That was the message during a keynote panel discussion at the current Raving Next Indian Gaming Conference in Albuquerque.
Susan Jensen, executive director of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association, described how tribes in her state soundly defeated a ballot measure last November pushed by commercial gaming to allow mobile sports wagering.
Jensen sounded the alarm that tribes not only in California, but across the country, continue to face threats to their sovereignty. They must all work with lawmakers to protect their rights and gather public support, like they did in defeating the California ballot measure, Proposition 27.
Jensen cited a lawsuit filed in Washington state by card- room operator Maverick Gaming in what’s considered a move to end state gaming compacts with tribes. She also referred to a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard arguments in November on Haaland versus Brackeen; the court is considering the Indian Child Welfare Act that gives Native families preference in fostering or adopting children. It’s being challenged by a non-native couple in Texas.
“The Brackeen case is a big red flag,” Jensen said. “Our attorneys are saying that the arguments in Brackeen were almost the same they used in the Maverick case in Washington. These are Indian haters and anti-sovereignty people. As of right now, they’re going about it in a roundabout way, but this is (really) about taking your gaming rights.”
Jensen said tribes need to continue to educate the public on why it’s wrong and hurtful to tribal nations and how it needs to be stopped.
“Luckily, for now, the courts are ruling in our favor, but we’re waiting for the Supreme Court in the Brackeen case,” Jensen said. “What that might mean is very scary. States can start preparing for it. In California, we have some legislative language already written up in case of a negative ruling. We’re holding that in our pocket.”
Laura Penney, CEO of the Coeur d’ Alene Casino Resort and Hotel that’s celebrating its 30th anniversary in March, also lamented that tribal sovereignty is under threat and reiterated the importance of tribes communicating and collaborating, plus informing people about how gaming revenue helps the community. Even the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act passed by Congress in 1988 is an infringement on that sovereignty, she said.
“I was involved with the committee on whether or not we should get into gaming,” Penney said. “The pros definitely outweigh the cons, but today we’re faced with ongoing challenges to our sovereign right to do what’s best for our tribes and communities. We’re challenged on many different levels — and sports betting is one of them.”
Tribes in Washington state banded together through the Washington Gaming Association and succeeded in implementing sports betting. Washington continues to benefit, while Idaho is limited by IGRA, in that the tribe can offer only what the state allows. Sports betting is illegal in Idaho.
Penney said they had to fight for bingo, then launched poker, only to have the state shut it down and fine the tribe. It took a ballot measure to get approval for video gaming, as slot machines aren’t allowed.
“Maybe there’s a loophole where we can offer sports betting,” Penney said. “We’re looking at that. Many say it’s just an amenity, but it does enhance an overall gaming experience. There are issues over opening up our gaming compact and perhaps providing an amendment to have sports betting. It’s needed to stay competitive and bring revenue to our property.”
Jensen recounted the tribes’ fight that cost hundreds of millions of dollars was spent on ballot measures to bring sports betting to California. The tribes backed a retail-only option at their casinos and the state’s horse tracks.
“The corporations came into the state, but didn’t do much outreach to tribes,” Jensen said. “They said, ‘Let us come in and control sports betting and we’ll give you a little money. The California tribes opposed that with everything they had. If sports betting happens in California, it should be an asset to the tribes.”
The referendum was one of the largest defeats in California history. Among the top six initiative failures, 82% of Californians voted down the corporations, Jensen said.
“They spent more than $100 million to try to confuse our voters by saying it’s good for tribes. But voters knew better, thanks to the tribes’ outreach,” Jensen said.
One of the overriding themes for all tribes nationwide is sovereignty and Jensen said that’s what they saw in the sports-betting fight. When it came down to protecting those sovereign rights, it was amazing the corporations didn’t understand that.
“Corporations are money driven,” Jensen said, “driven by profit. Tribes are driven by protecting their rights and their sovereignty and you can’t put a dollar figure on that. If you try to come in and spend a lot of money to take something from the tribes, we will fight you. Every tribe across the country can unify against these corporations that don’t see gaming the same way tribes do. We’re not using the gaming dollars to buy vacation homes, yachts, or another car. We’re funding health care, elder services, roads, and infrastructure. If our casinos and sovereign rights go away, so do those. This is about people and generations and investment in them. We can all come together as nations and send the message to the country that this is about tribes and their longevity here.”