NIGA Holds Meeting at Sandia Pueblo in Albuquerque On Tribal Sovereignty in the 21st Century

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August 21, 2018

Albuquerque, NM – August 16, 2018 – The National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA) held a historic meeting at the Sandia Pueblo located near Albuquerque, N.M., to discuss Tribal Sovereignty in the 21st Century. With a critical November election rapidly approaching, Tribal Leaders saw a need to come together and discuss how Tribal Sovereignty is evolving in this era of political turbulence. The naming of a new Supreme Court Justice is also in the mix and will greatly impact Indian Country.

The Sandia Pueblo graciously offered to host this important meeting at their Resort and Casino. Sandia Pueblo Councilman and NIGA Board Member, Stuart Paisano, welcomed tribal leaders to the Sandia Reservation and thanked them for discussing this important subject at Sandia. Councilman Paisano stressed the impact of where Tribes were 40 years ago and how far they have come economically and politically without sacrificing those sacred Treaties signed with the United States. He held Sandia Pueblo up as just one of many examples in Indian Country where adherence to the principle of sovereignty has led to long lasting positive change for its Tribal citizens.

The meeting began with an address from one of Indian Country’s emerging political leaders, Debra Haaland, candidate for the New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District. A citizen of Laguna Pueblo, Ms. Haaland stressed the importance of remembering our forefathers that fought for, defended, and preserved, our way of life. She recounted her own father that fought for this country in Vietnam and took a job off the reservation but worked tirelessly to instill his Laguna Pueblo culture in his children. This family scenario has been part of Indian Country’s story since the first treaties were signed: Native American citizens trying to survive and figure out where their cultures and families can peacefully exist in an era of change.

Ms. Haaland’s inspiring words come at a time when Native American women are poised to make incredible political inroads this November. Paulette Jordan, Coeur D’Alene Tribal member, NIGA Secretary, and candidate for Idaho Governor, would be the first Native American governor in U.S. history. In Kansas, Ho-Chunk Tribal citizen Sharice Davids, is a candidate for the 3rd Congressional District and hopes to join Ms. Haaland in Congress in November. Finally, Peggy Flanagan, a White Earth Band of Ojibwe citizen, won the Democratic party’s nomination for Lieutenant Governor in Minnesota and her opponent, Donna Bergstrom, a member of the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe, won the Republican nomination. No matter the result, history will be made when, for the first time, a Native American Woman will be the Lieutenant Governor of Minnesota. Thanks to these outstanding Native American women candidates, this election cycle could be a truly transformative year for Indian Country and protecting tribal sovereignty.

Tribal Sovereignty and Current Economic Challenges Facing Tribes

One of the longest and enduring challenges to Tribal Sovereignty is the power to tax activity on Indian Reservations. Carrie Frias, Chief General Counsel of the Pueblo of Pojoaque, provided a very thorough presentation on the interplay between the IRS and fair treatment of Tribes under this country’s tax code. Equally as important, is the fair treatment of Tribes under this nation’s labor laws. Tribal leaders received a briefing from Mr. Dave Devendorf, Nighthorse Consultants, and John Harte at Mapetsi Consulting, on the respect Tribal Governments are due under our Treaties and the U.S. Constitution. State and local government enterprises, incorporated under state charter, are not subject to Federal labor laws. Tribal Government-owned entities are owned in the same respect and should also be exempt.

Fair treatment under the labor laws and tax laws of this country is central for Tribal entrepreneurs doing business in Indian Country. Tribal leaders heard from two of the most successful Tribal businesspeople in Indian Country on their challenges raising capital and diversifying their tribal economies in the face of historic and discriminatory regulatory burdens on Tribal enterprises. Mr. Derek Valdo, CEO of AMERIND, a native-owned insurance company based in Indian Country at the Santa Ana Pueblo in New Mexico, encouraged Tribal Leaders to stand their ground on Tribal Sovereignty and look to their own tribal governments and agencies to protect tribal enterprises.

Similarly, Cherokee citizen Mr. Shane Jett from the Citizen Potawatomi Community Development Corporation in Oklahoma, stated that Indian Country has had to work twice as hard to obtain financing for capital ventures. Mr. Jett cited the opportunities available to Tribal Government leaders to tap into community development by helping to fund our Native youth entrepreneurs. He encouraged Tribal leaders to educate their politicians and federal bureaucrats on the Sovereign status afforded to Tribal Government entities under Treaties, the Constitution, and the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA). Mr. Jett has been successful in obtaining financing from the Community Development Financial Institutions Fund (CDFI), a federal government grant program, to help jump start economic activity on Indian lands in Oklahoma.

Tribal Leaders also heard from guest speakers at lunch looking to employ mass media to enhance the perceptions of Tribal Sovereignty. Native American film and T.V. Director, Chris Eyre, is seeking to use Native-owned companies to broadcast Indian stories to wider audiences. He is working with Elizabeth Bell, Attorney-at-Law, working in Hollywood to secure Tribal financing for Native American themed films and TV shows. Dr. Joley Proudfit of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, made a special appearance to give her story about how Indian gaming helped her tribe completely change their economic opportunities and presence in California within the last decade. The message from our speakers in regards to the importance of increasing our perspectives in media was this: taking control of Indian stories and histories, and presenting them on platforms such as cable TV and world-wide release at theatres, would allow Indian Country to tell the story of preserving Tribal Sovereignty through Indian eyes.

John Echohawk, Executive Director of the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) presented a Supreme Court update of cases before the Supreme Court and lead a discussion of how these cases could have large potential impacts on Tribal Sovereignty. Another focus of his presentation was the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and his record on Indian Law.

Finally, as the leading voice for the Indian Gaming Community, NIGA focused the end of the meeting on two gaming subjects that impact Tribal sovereignty directly: Class II gaming and Sports betting. Longtime tribal advocate and former NIGC Commissioner, Elizabeth Homer, Osage Nation, told Tribal leaders that Class II gaming is the bedrock of Tribal gaming. She said, “As the sole form of gaming that is completely regulated by Tribes, Indian Country must remain committed to offering this class of games as an entertainment option.” Russell Witt, Director of Class II Gaming at Ainsworth and NIGA Board Member, and Jerry Danforth, V.P. of Aries Gaming (formerly Rocket Gaming), both described for Tribal leaders the technological innovations taking place in the Class II industry. Jerry Danforth said, “There is no better example of exercising your sovereign rights, than the opportunities for tribes and their operation of Class II gaming machines.” Witt said, “With the technological advancements in the development of Class II gaming machines, we are adding new dimensions to the gaming experience on the gaming floor.”

Since the Supreme Court overturned the statutes outlawing Sports Betting, Tribal Leaders have been sorting through how that decision impacts their gaming compacts with the States and their casino operations. Chief of Staff at NIGA, Debbie Thundercloud, led a discussion on the impact of sports betting in Indian Country. She was joined by New Mexico State Representative, Georgene Louis, and Apache Tribal Member Richard Frias of Capitol Hill Policy Group, to discuss the “on-the ground” movements in Indian Country towards operating a sports betting operation.

It is likely that the Mississippi Choctaw Nation will be the first Tribe to offer sports betting in Indian Country. The panel members noted the uniqueness of the Mississippi Choctaw position as a self-regulating Tribe in a Class III gaming state that does not require them to have a compact. In New Mexico, similar to other states such as Washington and Oklahoma, the Governors and legislatures are very interested in authorizing sports betting under State law. However, the compact ramifications for Tribal casino operations and the potential that it will violate Tribes’ exclusivity to offer gaming, strikes directly at Tribes’ sovereignty to regulate their own affairs on the reservation.

As Tribes look to the future, these types of intricate economic and technological issues are likely to continue to impact Tribal sovereignty and what it means to exercise tribal sovereignty in the 21st Century. Chairman Stevens stated: “Our work here today and the information provided by these esteemed panelists will help to define and further Indian Country’s defense of Tribal Sovereignty. Our forefathers never intended for their people to be stuck in time when they negotiated Treaties with the U.S. Tribal citizens have the sovereign right to engage in economic activity free from undue State and Federal regulatory burdens. This has been a centuries-long struggle, but with hard work and perseverance, our reservation economies continue to grow and help improve the lives of our citizens and neighbors.”

NIGA will continue discussing Tribal Sovereignty in the 21st Century at our Mid-Year Conference from September 25-27 at Pechanga Resort in Temecula, California. We hope you can join us at Pechanga and we look forward to continued dialogue and input from Tribal Leaders throughout Indian Country.