Hidden Gems: How Rural Casinos are Changing the Game in the Northern Plains

This article was originally published pre-pandemic in the April 2019 gaming issue of Native Business Magazine. 

At the beginning of the gaming industry in the Northern Plains, some operations got their start as weekly bingo games held in school gymnasiums, converted trailers or even, in some cases, church basements. Since then, however, things have changed. 

Today, 32 years after the Supreme Court victory in California v. Cabazon, Tribes have gone from modest community bingo games that began as fundraisers for things like fire trucks and elder meals to sophisticated, state-of-the-art gaming facilities that offer a wide range of amenities, activities and events. From yacht cruises, golf courses and fishing competitions to “adventure packages,” wild horse sanctuaries and conference facilities, many rural Tribal casinos have now become vacation destinations for the whole family.

“Indian gaming has really transformed the landscape for Tribes in the Northern Plains, who have done a great job in building truly unique destination resorts where people can bring their families,” says Mark Van Norman, former executive director of the National Indian Gaming Association who is now a private consultant. “The Tribes have turned what were originally modest facilities into gathering places for a wide variety of customers — it’s really a social phenomenon.”

According to a recent report from Bank of America/Merrill Lynch, Indian gaming has now captured a whopping 43 percent of the total gaming market in the United States, compared to Las Vegas, whose market share is around 10 percent. Moreover, according to the latest numbers from the National Indian Gaming Commission, Indian gaming grew nearly four percent in 2017, bringing Gross Gaming Revenues (GGR) to $32.4 billion. 

“We get 44 million visitors a year at Tribal gaming facilities across the country,” says Van Norman, who is a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Dakota. “That’s roughly 30 percent of the adult population in this country coming out and supporting our Tribal economies. That’s huge, because in the Northern Plains, it’s about jobs for our people, building our local economies and improving our quality of life.”

According to the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association (AIANTA), Tribes have also become major players in the international tourism industry. In 2016, for example, over 2 million overseas travelers visited Indian Country. Moreover, AIANTA projects that overseas tourism will account for over $10 billion in direct spending and 50,000 newly created jobs in Indian Country by 2020. 

It’s also a win-win for customers, as Tribes continue to expand their portfolios to include businesses and activities that create synergy with their gaming facilities. Here we highlight some of the hidden gems that are off the beaten path, but are worth checking out for their excellent service, variety of activities and amenities for the whole family.

In the Northern Plains, miles separate many Tribal casinos. (iStock)

Spirit Lake Casino and Resort

Located in St. Michael, North Dakota, Spirit Lake Casino and Resort (SLCR) has come a long way from its early days in the 1990s as a bingo hall located in a converted gym. Today, its facilities have expanded to include 45,000 square feet of gaming space, a 124-room hotel, six fully-furnished log cabins, and a full service RV park.

“We’ve set the standard for Tribal gaming in North Dakota and we have a mission to be the premier destination in the state,” says Collette Brown, executive director for the Spirit Lake Gaming Commission. “Because our motto is ‘Great stories start here,’ we’re committed to providing a level of excellence in every area of our facility, whether you’re here for an evening or a week.”

Situated on the southern shores of Devil’s Lake, Spirit Lake also has a marina and world-class fishing, along with guide services for hunting and tourism. In June, SLCR will host its 19th annual Walleye Classic as a part of the Casino Cup Walleye Circuit sponsored by Ranger Boats.

The View Steakhouse offers fine dining, featuring steak and seafood along with spectacular views of Devil’s Lake from SLCR’s third floor. The Tribe’s hotel also features luxury suites, a four-story indoor pool and waterslide, and a sauna and exercise room, and meeting facilities for events of up to 500.

Today, Spirit Lake Casino and Resort employs over 350 people, 85 percent of whom are Native. The economic benefits, however, extend well beyond the Spirit Lake community, says Brown.

“It’s been very important for not only for our economic development, but also for our neighbors in the surrounding communities and for North Dakota,” says Brown, who has been in the industry for over two decades. “But we’re always looking for new ways to grow and build on what we’ve started.”

The Spirit Lake Casino and Resort boasts a full-service marina and will host the 19th annual Walleye Classic as a part of the Casino Cup Walleye Circuit in North Dakota.

Four Bears Casino and Lodge

Operated by the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Tribes (MHA Nation), Four Bears Casino and Lodge is situated on the spectacular Lake Sakakawea just west of New Town in west central North Dakota. Located in the Bakken oil region on the Missouri River, Four Bears has become a major player in the Tribal gaming industry in the Northern Plains. 

“We started out in an old Motor Lodge motel back in the early 1990s,” says Four Bears general manager Scott Wilson. 

Initially, says Wilson, its gaming operations were financed through a management company that came with a lot of strings — and high interest rates —  which was a common practice in the early days of the Indian gaming industry. Eventually, however, the Tribe quickly gained its independence.

“We took over own management and began promoting our own Tribal members from within,” says Wilson, who is also a member of MHA Nation. “We were also able to become debt-free, which allowed us to manage our facilities the way we wanted to, which has been great for us.”

The old motel facility was eventually replaced by a 220-room hotel overlooking Lake Sakakawea, along with a full-service RV park and lakeside cabins. In 2016, the Tribe also added a $50 million event center, featuring a wide variety of entertainment, including concerts, boxing matches, pool tournaments and rodeos. 

Four Bears also offers public and private cruises on Lake Sakakawea on its yacht, which has on board catering and bar options for up to 150 people. In 2018, the Tribe added the Four Bears Water Park featuring two water slides, a zero-entry lazy river with an action channel, a designated birthday party area, and a 2,400-square-foot splash feature.

For the active outdoor recreation crowd, there’s plenty to do, including golf, boating, hiking, fishing, hunting and horseback riding.

Today, 26 years after Four Bears opened its doors, the facility now has over 415 employees, 72 percent of whom are Native. For the MHA Nation, whose reservation was established in 1871, the economic development that was kickstarted by gaming has benefitted the region and the state in multiple ways. 

“From the beginning, we’ve strived to become a destination location for both gaming customers and tourists,” says Wilson. “We want our customers to have a great experience in a clean, fun environment where they can bring their kids and enjoy all the amenities and activities. There’s no question, we have a lot to offer.”

Prairie Knights Casino and Resort

Now in its 25th year, Prairie Knights Casino and Resort is located an hour south of Bismarck, North Dakota, and is one of the region’s major entertainment destinations. Owned by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, the casino’s revenues took a major hit in 2017 after Highway 1806 was shutdown by law enforcement during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, cutting off a major roadway to the casino. 

“When the bridge was shut off,” Standing Rock CFO Jerome Long Bottom told the Bismarck Tribune at the time, “the numbers just plummeted.”

Since then, the casino’s management has worked double time, launching several public relations and marketing campaigns, to regain its footing in the competitive gaming market in North Dakota. 

A critical source of income for the Tribe, revenues from Prairie Knights provide crucial funding for n everything from emergency services and programs for diabetes and addictions to head start, K-12 and waste management. 

Today, two years after the events of 2016-2017, Prairie Knights is making its way back to profitability. According to the Tribe, the facility employs approximately 350 people, 76 percent of whom are Native. Roughly 64 percent of its management team is also Native. 

Approximately 35 percent of the casino’s employees live in Bismarck and contribute millions to the local economy, according to the Bismarck Tribune. Meanwhile, the Tribe does roughly $7 million in business with companies in Bismarck and Mandan. 

Prairie Knights hotel features 200 rooms and 12 luxury suites, a pool with a 129-foot water slide, with amenities including an arcade, an exercise room, covered parking and charging stations for electric vehicles.

Additionally, Prairie Knights continues to have a packed schedule of featured performers and events at The Pavilion, its 34,000-square foot multifunctional event center that can also host everything from small meetings to trade shows and conventions. 

In spite of its recent struggles, the casino’s general manager, E.J. Iron Eyes told the Bismarck Tribune that attendance and revenues are on the mend.  

“We’ve made up a lot of ground,” he said.

The Four Bears Casino Yacht is available for both public and private tours and events.

Wind River Hotel and Casino

Located two miles south of Riverton, Wyoming, the Wind River Hotel and Casino (WRHC) is owned by the Northern Arapaho Tribe and is the largest gaming facility in the state.

A major success story in the Northern Plains, WRHC is the crown jewel in the Tribe’s business portfolio, which includes two other casinos (The 789 Smoke Shop and Casino and The Little Wind Casino), a convenience store, a commercial laundry and the Black Mountain Embroidery Shop. 

According to the Tribe, WRHC alone employs over 700 people, over 90 percent of whom are Native, making it an economic powerhouse not only on the reservation, but also in a state that has the smallest population in the country at just over half a million people. The total economic impact, according to GVA Marquette Advisors, hovers at approximately $100 million per year. 

In 2018, the Wind River hotel was awarded a Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence and features pet-friendly and handicapped rooms, along with luxury suites and deluxe bathrooms with double jacuzzi spas. For recreational vehicle enthusiasts, there are also 24 RV spaces available that include WiFi access and complimentary coupons for the casino, restaurants and gift shop.

WRHC also features stay-and-play “Adventure Packages” for the intrepid traveler, including golf packages at the Riverton Country Club; half- and full-day whitewater rafting; the “Dino Dig” guided archaeology dig and tour in nearby Hot Springs; and the Wild Horse Sanctuary Tour that concludes with a four-star meal at one of the Tribe’s restaurants.

Honorable Mentions

Prairie Wind Casino and Hotel

Located near the Black Hills and the Badlands, 10 minutes east of Oelrich, South Dakota, Prairie Wind Casino and Hotel (PWCH) is owned by the Oglala Sioux Tribe on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Having recently undergone improvements and an extensive marketing and re-branding campaign, PWCH is now one of the top rated hotel/casino destinations in the region. The hotel features 78 rooms, along with an indoor pool and hot tub. Its state-of-the-art event center, The Lakota Dome, features concerts, comedians, and other live entertainment.

PWCH also has a convention center with catering facilities that can accommodate meetings, parties and receptions of any size.

Glacier Peaks Hotel and Casino

Owned and operated by the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana, Glacier Peaks Hotel and Casino (GPHC) is located in Browning, approximately 12 miles from Glacier National Park and 40 minutes south of Alberta, Canada. 

As the newest hotel property at the entrance to Glacier National Park, GPHC has 86 rooms, many of which have unobstructed, spectacular views of 53 mountain peaks. Additionally, the hotel features an indoor heated swimming pool, a business center, fitness room and hot breakfast buffet. Local attractions which can be booked through the hotel include the Blackfeet Nation Bison Reserve; North American Indian Days Celebration; The Museum of the Plains Indian; Guided trout fishing and, of course, tours to Glacier National Park. 

GPHC also has a conference and catering center that can accommodate up to 100 for business and Tribal events. Dining includes the Jackpot Restaurant, Lucky’s Lounge and the Glacier Grind Coffee House.