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Indian Gaming: Gambling on Indian Reservations

One of the benefits of becoming a federally recognized American Indian tribe (effectively a “ward of the state” with certain rights and regulations) is the ability to own and operate a casino or other gaming facility on tribal or reservation land.

The Lumbee Indians of North Carolina, who have been appealing to the government for recognition for more than 200 years, have insisted they aren’t concerned with this allowance. They were given recognition in 1885 but the appropriate benefits were withheld.

But Clara Sue Kidwell, director of the American Indian Center at UNC-Chapel Hill, admits the Lumbee probably would open a casino if given the chance, considering the financial benefits.

Native American Gaming

Gaming brings in revenue for tribes and is not taxed by the government, which is a boon for many reservations that suffer some of the lowest poverty levels in the country.

In North Carolina, as Senators Hagan and Burr argue that the Lumbee deserve federal recognition with full benefits, there’s a firestorm surrounding alleged contradictions with a state law banning video poker in the state. A Fayetteville game machine vendor argues that there should be no exception for the casino in Cherokee, N.C.

How did casinos come to be associated with American Indians in the first place? Depending on the part of the country, some connect “casino” with “Indian” quite easily – some states have several recognized Indian tribes with casinos on their reservations – but other states have none.

Kidwell, who has spent much of her life studying American Indians and descends from the Chippewa and Choctaw tribes, explains that it all started with a Florida Indian tribe almost forty years ago.

The Cabazon Decision

In the 1970s the Seminole tribe opened a high-stakes bingo enterprise on their reservation, igniting questions of fairness and gaming legality that led to several cases in the Florida courts system. When the case made it to the United States Supreme Court in 1987, the Cabazon decision removed gambling restrictions on Indian reservations.

Indian Gaming Regulatory Act

In response to the Cabazon decision, Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGR) in 1988, permitting gambling centers on Indian reservations in states with legalized gambling. By 1996 there were almost 300 gaming centers run by 184 tribes, some on and some off reservations, but all bringing in millions of dollars.

When Congress passed the IGR in 1988, they also created the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) to oversee and regulate Native American gaming. This split gaming jurisdiction into three categories, classes I, II and III covering charitable gaming for small prizes, bingo, and casinos respectively.

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