American Indian History Month

How Native Americans Got Game

How gaming became a billion dollar industry for Native Americans.

by Jennie Wood
Sandia Casino

Sandia Resort and Casino, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Photo Credit: Mario1952

Related Links

When a couple on living on a Minnesota reservation appealed a $147.95 property tax bill, little did they know that they were setting the stage for a multi-billion dollar business to flourish on reservations across the nation.

In June 1972, Itasca County, Minnesota, sent a property tax bill for $147.95 to Russell and Helen Bryan, a Chippewa couple living in a mobile home on the Greater Leech Lake Indian Reservation. Under U.S. law, Native Americans living on reservations are exempt from paying property taxes. The Bryans reached out to the Leech Lake Reservation Legal Services Project, which took the case to court. The Bryans lost the case at both the district court and the Minnesota Supreme Court.

However, the Bryans persisted, and their case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which unanimously ruled in their favor. In the decision, authored by Justice William Brennan, the Supreme Court ruled that states do not have the authority to tax Indians who live on Indian reservations. The decision also said that states do not have the authority to regulate Indian activities on reservations. Native Americans saw an opportunity to improve their economic plight, and over the next few years, bingo operations popped up on reservations all over the United States. An industry was born, and casinos popped up on reservations throughout the 1970s and 80s.

Let the Games Begin

But that industry met with controversy and litigation early on. In most cases, any incidents that went to court were ruled in favor of Native Americans. For example, on their reservation near Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the Seminole Tribe built a large bingo operation that operated six days a week. However, their business hours conflicted with a Florida state law that only allowed bingo halls to be open two days a week. The case went to trial and the district court ruled in favor of the Seminoles.

Controversy raged on because states were afraid that without regulation, Native Americans had an advantage over non-reservation gambling establishments which were regulated. People feared Native American establishments would siphon income away from communities and towns outside reservations. There was also concern about criminal activity and organized crime. To address some of these issues, Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) in 1988. The new bill still allowed tribes to open and operate casinos on reservations, but mandated that the tribes must have a Tribal-State compact with the state in which they were located. IGRA also clearly stated that the federal government had the power to regulate gaming. The Tribal-State compact allowed states to force tribes to pay a special tax on casino revenue. As soon as IGRA was passed, the National Indian Gaming Commission, a federal agency, was set up to assist in the regulation of high-stakes gaming on reservations. IGRA did not hinder the new business venture. Revenue for Native American gaming went from $110 million in 1988 to $16.7 billion in 2006.

According to the most recent data from the National Indian Gaming Commission, 240 tribes were operating 460 gambling establishments in 2011. Total revenue for that year was $27 billion.

Reservations

In 2013, half of the Native Americans who live on or near reservations are members of a tribe that has opened a casino. Studies show that casinos have benefitted Native Americans and reservations in several ways. Younger generations have moved back to reservations with casinos, resulting in an 11.5 percent increase in population. Employment for people living on reservations with casinos has increased 26 percent. There has been a 14 percent decline in poverty. A large majority of people working in casinos on reservations are not Native Americans, so counties with casinos have seen an increase in employment as well.

However, there are some negative effects. Counties where a casino has been opened for at least four years have seen around a ten percent increase in bankruptcy, crime and larceny. Also, so much success has brought increased competition from non-tribal gaming, an industry that has been encouraged and assisted by state governments looking for ways to increase tax revenue.

Native American tribes are making business ventures beyond gaming. In 2013, Minnesota's Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe purchased two hotels in St. Paul, making them the largest hotel owners in the city. The Winnebago tribe of Nebraska owns over 24 national and international businesses. Their businesses range from construction to advertising. While the gaming industry has brought a new level of wealth and independence, Native Americans are currently investing in ventures that are more stable economically and not placing all their bets on just one thing.


Source: U.S. Census Bureau, National Indian Gaming Commission, Bryan v. Itasca County, The Social and Economic Impact of Native American Casinos by William Evans and Julie Topoleski


Information Please® Database, © 2007 Pearson Education, Inc. All rights reserved.

Did you know?
The Islamic year is counted from the year in which Muhammad emigrated from Mecca to Medina (622).

stay connected

Sign up for our free email newsletters and receive the latest advice and information on all things parenting.

Enter your email address to sign up or manage your account.

Facebook icon Twitter icon Follow Us on Pinterest

editor’s picks

highlights

3 Fun Thanksgiving Games for Kids
Looking for some great Thanksgiving games to play with your kids? Print our free Pin the Feathers on the Turkey game, Pin the Hat on the Pilgrim game, and Thanksgiving Parade Bingo game for loads of laughs this Turkey Day!

Kindergarten Readiness App Wins Gold
Our Kindergarten Readiness app won the Gold Award of Excellence in the educational category at the 2014 Communicator Awards. This valuable checklist comes with games and activities to help your child practice the essential skills she needs for kindergarten. Download the Kindergarten Readiness app today!

8 Surprising Sources of Caffeine in Kids' Foods
Even low doses of caffeine can have an effect on your child's health. Since the FDA doesn't require caffeine content on food labels, learn about hidden sources of caffeine in kids' diets.

Find Today's Newest & Best Children's Books!
Looking for newly released books for your child? Try our new Book Finder tool to search for new books by age, type, and theme, and create reading lists for kids!