ingman-Wapato, Cheyenne River Sioux, is a former teacher, principal, tribal college president, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians and NIGA public relations director. She has been a fierce defender of tribal sovereignty all her life.
She talked about NIGA’s early struggles during the contentious 1990s when tribes were battling with states over forming their gaming operations and she and her late husband, Tim Wapato, helped develop, organize and form NIGA and its policies.
“My husband was a retired LAPD lieutenant and he told a story about how you have a partner and when you go through that door you have to trust your partner. At NIGA, we went through a lot of doors and we had large groups of Indian people who went through them with us and we survived a lot of battles and as we established NIGA it was out of necessity,” Kingman-Wapato said.
The keynote panel, called “On the Record: Tribal Gaming Issues and Answers,” was hosted by NIGA and introduced by its chairman, Ernie Stevens Jr., Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin.
In his keynote address, Stevens said Indian country plays a vital part in the overall gaming industry and has been a major part of the success of G2E, which is the largest international gaming conference and trade show in the country. The expo took place at the Las Vegas Convention Center November 16 – 19. He also said Indian gaming is one of the most regulated industries in the world.
“We continue to be one of the most structured, disciplined and hardworking industries. I am proud of the progressive success of tribal government gaming. We continue to move forward, because it is our number one priority to strengthen our communities and provide vital services to our members and further with the creation of 600,000 jobs in our industry, we are helping make America a better place.”
Stevens also spoke positively about the potential benefits for Indian country from the Obama administration, but the crucial factor is tribal leaders, he said. “The success and victory and the steps forward in any presidential administration wasn’t really about the president; it was about the president’s respect for consultation, respect for tribal government and respect for treaties. But what it really boils down to is the (tribal) leadership and their work ethic, how they approach the White House – respect, energy, communication, dialogue. That’s really what it is, so I want to make sure that I put it on your shoulders,” Stevens said.
Several of the panelists represent what Stevens called “the new generation” of tribal government leadership. They included Kevin Leecy, Bois Forte Band of Chippewa in Minnesota chairman, Mark A. Macarro, chairman of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians in California, and Stuart Paisano, councilman of the Pueblo of Sandia Tribe in New Mexico.
Also on the panel were Mark Van Norman, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and NIGA’s executive director, and George Skibine, Osage Nation and acting chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission, who spoke on several panels during the four-day conference.
Although Leecy focused on the Midwest, he covered several themes common to many of the tribal leaders. Tribal casinos, specifically in Minnesota and in the Midwest, have experienced revenue declines of three to 20 %, presenting tribes with the chance to review the threats and opportunities facing them, Leecy said. “I think the opportunity is that tribes are used to working with less. We have a history of doing that.”
So the tribe has tightened its belt in order to assure that programs and services for its citizens are not cut, Leecy said. Tribal nations across the country are also trying hard not to lay people off. “I think tribes have a real commitment to their employees. They want to make sure that the people are employed because the money they make goes to their families and back to their communities.”
Many states are currently trying to glom more revenue from tribal enterprises during this economic downturn when states are experiencing multi-billion dollar deficits. Minnesota, which was one of the first states in the country to sign a tribal-state gaming compact, is currently facing a us$ 7 billion deficit.
“Now they want to go to the tribes to see if they can help solve their budget deficit. We had little or no influence in setting that budget. We can control what we have here in the tribes and tribal nations. We’re good at that. I think the states are going to have to learn how to do that also,” Leecy said. It’s important to protect tribal gaming, he said. “We need to stand united to do that. This is a difficult time, but I think Indian country’s going to get through this.”
NIGA is a nonprofit trade association comprised of 184 American Indian nations and other non-voting associate members. It is an educational, legislative and public policy resource for tribes, policymakers and the public on Indian gaming issues and tribal community development.