On IGRA’s 30th Anniversary, Tribal Leaders Reflect on the Act and its Impact on Emerging Markets

On October 17, 1988, exactly 30 years ago today, the 100th United States Congress enacted the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) to authorize and regulate Indian gaming.

The Supreme Court’s landmark 1987 decision in California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians recognized the inherent sovereign authority of Indian tribes to regulate gaming within their tribal jurisdictions. The ruling opened doors for IGRA, which ultimately revitalized economic development across Indian country.

IGRA aims to uphold tribal self-sufficiency and self-determination, promote economic development, and protect the integrity of Indian gaming to ensure that Indian tribes are the primary beneficiaries of their gaming operations. The law established the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) and gave it a regulatory mandate, while delegating new authority to the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Since the passage of IGRA, many tribal casinos across the nation have thrived. According to NIGC figures, 494 casinos owned by 242 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. collected $32.4 billion in revenue in 2017, reflecting a 3.9 percent improvement compared to the $31.2 billion generated in fiscal year 2016.

“All of Indian Country has worked very hard to maintain a flourishing and constantly growing gaming industry,” said Chairman of the NIGC, Jonodev Chaudhuri (Muscogee Creek). “The successes of Indian gaming in the 30 years since IGRA prove that the foundational principles of federal Indian law should remain at the forefront of any future public policy discussions.”

In 2014, NIGC relocated to 90 K Street, N.E., Suite 200, Washington,D.C. 20002 (NIGC)

IGRA established three categories of gaming: Class I for traditional and social games for small prizes, Class II for games of chance based on bingo, and Class III for all games not included in the other two classes, such as slots and table games. Class III requires the tribe enter into a compact agreement with the state.

Sports betting likely falls under Class III wagering: “all forms of gaming that are not class I gaming or class II gaming.” In a discussion at a recent conference about sportsbooks at tribal casinos, Chaudhuri emphasized the need to protect sovereignty across new and existing gaming markets.

“Whether we are talking about sports betting or whatever is next on the horizon, we want to make the point that the success of Indian gaming, that flows from the respect of tribal sovereignty, should be kept in mind regardless of what the emerging market is that we are discussing,” Chaudhuri stated.

At a recent G2E Indian gaming track, tribal leaders came together to discuss the three decades of Indian gaming regulation under IGRA. Victor Rocha, President of Victor Strategies, moderated  the panel, “Tribal Leadership Roundtable: The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in the 21st Century,” featuring leaders Mark Macarro, Chairman of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians; Melanie Benjamin, Chief Executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Indians; Rodney Butler, Chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe; and Ernie Stevens, Jr., Chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association.

“IGRA is fundamentally important to everything we do. It’s the pillar and foundation,” said Chairman Macarro.

Chairman Butler underscored how IGRA opened up incredible opportunity for tribes, and indicated that he anticipates continued support as tribal casinos enter the sports betting market. “Fast forward to where we are today, we have built a very successful business that was foundational for many tribes throughout the nation. Our relationship with the state of Connecticut is strong even as to what we are looking at with sports betting,” he said.

Yesterday, NIGC hosted an event in Washington, D.C. to reflect on 30 years since the passage of IGRA. Chaudhuri noted: “The future of Indian gaming is not yet written and policy-makers would do well to build on the self-determination principles that have powered the successes of the last 30 years,” said the Chairman of the NIGC, Jonodev Osceola Chaudhuri. “In evaluating the gains made over the last 30 years, we at the NIGC, as regulators, have seen the inarguable benefit of supporting tribal decision-making wherever possible so that the primary regulators of Indian gaming – the Tribes themselves – can pursue effective economic development tailored to their unique histories and landbases consistent with IGRA’s policy goals and regulatory framework,” he said.