A brief history of Indian gaming: Past, present, and future

By Jason Savio


Today, Indian casinos are everywhere. From the West Coast to the East Coast, it is hard to travel the highways of America and not come across some form of Native American gaming. Whether it’s a bingo hall or a full-scale resort casino, chances are a tribe in your region is somehow involved in the industry. But how did it become so popular for tribes and why did they get drawn to it in the first place?

Humble Beginnings

In Indian tribal cultures, traditional games of chance are perhaps the earliest recorded examples of gambling. After having made contact with Europeans, non-traditional games began becoming incorporated into the culture, said Martin Reinhardt, associate professor at the Center of Native American Studies at Northern Michigan University. But this would eventually be about more than just recreation and instead become a means to an end.

Wilda Wahpepah, a Native American and attorney, has experience working with Indian gaming. Photo courtesy Wilda Wahpepah
Wilda Wahpepah, a Native American and attorney, has experience working with Indian gaming. Photo courtesy Wilda Wahpepah

Wilda Wahpepah, a Native American in the Winnebago tribe and an attorney who has worked in tribal gaming business, noted that Indian gaming meshes with Native American culture.  She mentioned that tribal social events often involved gaming.  And that construct  is what has provided the foundation of modern-day Indian gaming. The mission statement has been a universal effort by tribes to create an opportunity to be self-sufficient and self-reliant by boosting a strong economy of its own.

“It was a gradual adaptation that took place,” said Reinhardt. “Modern Indian gaming is more rooted in tribes trying to find a way to revitalize their local economies.”

But the revitalization didn’t happen right away. Some states prohibit gambling, and the question about whether or not state law applied to gaming on Indian reservations in such states was raised.

“Gaming really came to the fore during the 1970s and early 1980s as tribes opened bingo halls with higher and higher purses,” said Daniel M. Cobb, associate director of American Indian and Indigenous studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “When states like California and Florida challenged their right to do that, the tribes fought back in the courts and won. Gaming, and this is very, very important, is an act of sovereignty. It’s not just a business.”

The Spark

The court cases that Cobb is referring to are United States Court of Appeals decisions: Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Butterworth of 1981 and Barona Group of Capitan Grande Band of Mission Indians San Diego County v. Duffy of 1982. In the former case, in which the tribe’s ability to conduct gaming in the form of a bingo hall was brought into question, the court  found in favor of the tribe. This case would begin to set things in motion for the future of Indian gaming. In the latter case, the courts also ruled in favor of the tribe when they filed suit against San Diego County Sheriff John Duffy, who sought to stop their bingo operation on their reservation.

But what really helped clear the air and cement the opportunity for tribes in gaming was an act of Congress. In the Supreme Court case California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians, California wanted the tribe to stop gaming because it was prohibited under state law. State laws as a general rule, however, do not apply to sovereign tribal land and to tribal activities that take place within the tribe’s said territory. The courts recognized this, ruling in favor of the tribe. Congress, in response, created the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) in 1988, setting up the structure of what fell into whose jurisdiction.

“(It) unquestionably provided that it was legal,” said Wahpepah of the court’s decision. “Tribes that may otherwise have shied away from an activity, not knowing if it was legal or not, were now able to game under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. It eliminated the uncertainty and it provided a framework for development.”

Part of the framework is a three-level class system used to delineate different types of gaming,  explained Keith Richotte, Jr., a professor of Native American law and policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as well as an assistant justice for the Turtle Mountain tribe.

Class 3 gaming is the top level that involves the big operations like resorts and gaming parlors. The IGRA also requires that tribes must enter into a compact with the state in which the tribe’s reservation and gaming is located to “make sure that the state is at least somewhat complicit with what’s happening in the tribal community,” Richotte explained.

What has followed in the wake of the IGRA is a boom in Indian gaming revenue that jumped from $100 million in 1988 to $16.7 billion in 2006, according to Charles Wilkinson in his book, “Blood Struggle: The Rise of Modern Indian Nations.” That revenue is seen as providing much needed funds for tribes in poverty.

Mark Forest, an advisor and spokesman for the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, argued that the support of the tribes in court is the government’s way of giving back to the Native American community.

“Gaming was seen as a way to help tribes reclaim or gain some degree of self-sufficiency and independence,” said Forest. “Gaming was seen specifically as a tool to help redress wrongs. So when you look at Taunton, when you look at the situation here with the Mashpee tribe, it’s important to understand it in a broader context, that this effort to acquire land and to do gaming on the land that they have acquired in Taunton which is now reservation land is part of a historical change in terms of federal policy and how we work with tribes.”

What’s Next

Close to 500 Native American casinos operate across the United States today. With so many making money and being successful, the original intent to help strengthen tribal economy and assert more independence for tribes has been arguably met for the most part. But it hasn’t been the absolute remedy that some might think.

“Gaming has made things better, but it hasn’t cured all the ailments and it certainly hasn’t made most tribal people rich,” said Richotte. “What it has done is it has raised the (poverty) level from abjectly dismal levels to not-quite-so-bad.”

While having so many Indian casinos can spell economic success for tribes, it can also lead to overkill. If there are too many in close proximity to each other, experts said it can create a cannibalizing effect. In the Northeast region alone, there are eight casinos open at this moment, with at least potentially one more in the Wampanoag’s First Light resort casino in Taunton. Additionally, MGM Springfield is set to open in fall 2017, and another casino in Everett is being planned.

“It has changed in the sense that it is getting harder to expand the enterprise to generate more profits,” said Cobb of the maturity of the industry. “In a lot of places, the market is saturated.”

Some tribes are preparing themselves for such an outcome by spreading into other businesses.

“Smart tribal governments recognize that gaming could dry up so they’ve diversified many of their economic choices so that they’re not always solely reliant on gaming,” said Richotte. “Some tribes invest in different opportunities depending on who they are or where they are at.”

Tribes like the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux in Minnesota is one such example. In addition to having their own casino, they also have created their own small chain convenience stores and their own water bottling facility, to name a few of many ventures they have gone into.

But ultimately it comes down to the tribe and how it chooses to handle its successes.

“It depends on the tribe,” said Reinhardt. “Some have diversified and invested in their citizens and even opened businesses beyond their own borders (while) some rely solely on government and casino support. I hope that we continue to see tribes build their capacity and become much more independent.”

About Jason Savio 4 Articles
Jason Savio is a graduate of the master's program in journalism at Emerson College in Boston. He also writes entertainment features and reviews music and video games. When not working, he enjoys spending time with his dog, Oscar.