NIGA Chairman Ernie Stevens, Jr. and his wife, Cheryl Stevens
“As a teenager, we had one real good gymnasium in our community, and it was fairly new,” Stevens told Native Business Magazine. “And I wanted to play basketball and practice boxing, because I wanted to be the World Heavyweight Champion or the best basketball player in Indian Country, so that was what drove me.”
“So I despised all those bingo cars pulling up every night and taking over our gym,” he continued.
Stevens said that when he went to the gym, he would move all of the chairs set up for bingo so he could do his workouts. When he was finished, he refused to put the chairs back, which created some problems.
“So they sat me down, and this is what they told me,” Stevens said. “They said, ‘Look at the lights turning on.’ They said, ‘You know, you play baseball all summer long on the ball diamond, and then we get the Boys and Girls Club van to ride into town to go swimming or to play sports.’”
“We were sitting in the gym by those same chairs, and they said, ‘We can’t turn those lights on,’” Stevens continued. “We can’t put gas in this recreation van. We can’t turn the ball diamond lights on — unless we play bingo.’ And that’s easy math for a teenage kid who just wants to play sports and think that’s all there is to life.”
“And so I found that I had a newfound respect not just for the bingo and the chairs, but for those people that came through our doors,” Stevens said.
Several decades later, in 2001, Stevens was elected to serve as NIGA’s Chairman, a position that he has now held for nearly 20 years.
Both of Stevens’ parents played a major role in his life and gave him a model to follow, even though they divorced when he was five years old.
“My mother was activist-minded,” he said. “Some may say she was a heck raiser; she was part of a movement in the 1960s and 1970s that people look back on as protests and signs and loud voices — and that is all true. But the real product that came out of that era was recognition for who we are: our traditions, our culture, our religion and education. Those are the kind of things I really feel that movement fixed, and so that was kind of her niche.”
His father, too, was a nationally-recognized leader, working in Washington, D.C. on behalf of Tribal nations at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, as a lobbyist, as Executive Director of the American Indian Policy Review Commission, and, later, as the first Staff Director of what was then called the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs.
“Both of my parents, independently, did great things to change the world around us,” Stevens said. “And, you know, I just really wanted to be like them, and I wanted to change the world.”
NIGA’s origins stem from a humble but historic meeting of a small group of Tribal leaders in December 1985.
At that initial meeting, leaders from the Seminole Tribe of Florida hosted leaders from the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe of Michigan, the Kickapoo Tribe of Kansas, the Tulalip Tribes in Washington State, the Rumsey Rancheria in California, and the Ho-Chunk Tribe of Wisconsin. Included in that group was Stevens’ uncle, the late Oneida Chairman Purcell Powless, who also served as NIGA’s first Vice-Chairman.
Together, they formed a united voice for Indian Country to counter the growing attacks on Indian gaming in the federal courts and in Congress, and NIGA has played a role in every major Indian gaming decision and fight that has ensued over the last three and a half decades.
Almost immediately after NIGA’s formation, the organization helped prepare Indian Country for the legal battle that concluded in the historic Supreme Court case of California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians, which affirmed the inherent sovereign rights of Indian Tribes to conduct gaming on their lands to rebuild their communities without interference from the states.
In the aftermath of the Cabazon decision, states and commercial gaming interests pressed harder in Congress to overturn the decision, and once again, NIGA stood strong to defend Tribal sovereignty.
NIGA worked with champions of Indian Country on Capitol Hill, like Senators Daniel Inouye and John McCain, as well as Representatives Mo Udall and Ben Nighthorse Campbell, to ensure that the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) reflected and protected Tribal sovereignty and self-determination. For 31 years, NIGA has worked tirelessly to hold the Act to its core goals: promoting Tribal economic development and self-sufficiency, strengthening Tribal governments, and protecting the integrity of Indian gaming operations nationwide.
“Our priority is to see things from a policy standpoint, so that we can hopefully not have to react too much,” Stevens said. “Mostly, we’d like to be proactive in telling our story and sharing our message, and we have a great team in Washington [D.C.]. My top folks are Native lawyers, so they kind of lead the charge and know the ins and outs.”
“We work as a team, but it’s a good team to be on,” he said.
“The dedication he has as Chairman is just amazing,” said Cheryl Stevens, his wife of 37 years. “I stand back and I watch his interaction, and he’s really sincere with everything that he does and he says. We know his demands out there across the country. Even if it’s just for a grand opening for a small casino someplace, when he walks in the door the reaction he gets is outstanding that he was there for their opening, wherever it may be.”
“We’re pretty excited about where we are today,” he said. “We have amazing successes, but a lot of challenges still out there. So we hit the ground running and we get right back to work.”
One of the greatest rewards of being so steeped in gaming, Stevens says, is seeing the impacts that it’s had on various Tribes. In his own community, where he once had to fight for space at the only gym as a teenager, there are now several gym facilities that teenagers and others can use. There’s also a state-of-the-art elementary school, a high school, a fitness center, and a social service building.
“There’s so many things,” he said. “We’re not rich, and the money’s not just falling out of the sky, but we have to use our marketing skills, our business skills, and our legal skills so that we can continue to move forward. And that’s what my uncle Percy was always about.”
“His idea was that we need to protect what we have and build what we have right here in the heart of our community,” Stevens added. “And I think that applies across the country.”
“When it’s all done, it’s not really anything about me,” he said. “It’s watching that it’s commonplace now in Indian Country to go to college. It’s commonplace to see non-traditional students go to a Tribal college or local university. It’s commonplace now to see a person who is engaged in business and consulting and enterprise with and beyond gaming. Those are the real rewards that we all really reap.”
But his greatest reward, Stevens says, in addition to being able to serve Tribal governments, is being able to go home to his wife and his 17 grandchildren.
“Probably my best and most exciting social experience is when my wife makes me take her to the movies,” he said. “I get to watch her eat popcorn and watch whatever show she likes to watch. That’s really one of my greatest rewards.”
“As soon as he gets off the plane, I say ‘let’s go see a movie,” Mrs. Stevens said. “I’ll sit down to watch my favorite part, which is the previews, and he’ll bring popcorn, and then he might doze off, which is fine with me, because I know what he’s just been through.”
“That’s just our time together, and it rejuvenates him, and that’s what he needs,” she said. “You can’t just do a job like this and keep going and going and going and not get that recharge from your family, and that’s what he does.”
“But I’ll support him as long as he goes,” she said. “If he wants to go two more years, that’s fine. If he wants to go 10 more years, I’ll be here. His family will be here to support him.”
The Business of Indian Gaming
In the 31 years since Congress enacted IGRA, Indian gaming has steadily and responsibly grown to provide a consistent source of governmental revenue for Indian Tribes nationwide.
In 2001, approximately 200 Tribal governments were involved in Indian gaming, generating just under $10 billion in gross revenue and offering new opportunities for employment that many had never seen before.
In 2018, the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) reported that 241 Indian Tribes engaged in Indian Gaming, generating $33.7 billion in gross gaming revenue – a 4.1 percent increase over 2017. When adding in the $5.3 billion generated from ancillary revenues (hotels, restaurants, and other nearby entities), Indian gaming generated a total of $39 billion in 2018 alone.
Additionally, in 2018, Indian gaming generated 308,000 direct jobs, as well as an additional 458,000 indirect jobs for American families in 28 states. This is a total of just under 767,000 good-paying jobs.
Today, gaming continues to make advances. Several Native Nations are now managing international gaming resorts with operations in Europe, Asia and South America. Additionally, with the legalization of sports betting, many Tribes are carefully weighing whether and how they approach the issue, with some Tribes already operating sportsbooks as part of their gaming operations.