Chairman Stevens Talks Internet Gaming and Economic Development

Ernie Stevens Jr., Chairman, National Indian Gaming AssociationI know firsthand that trying to keep up with National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA) Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr.’s pace at a trade show is nearly impossible. He is constantly meeting with new members, old friends, tribal leaders, tribal business owners, and gaming company representatives. The man is in demand and has goals of his own to accomplish. He is a man on a mission—to support Indian gaming, defend Indian sovereignty and promote economic development in Indian country. This year, with an energy level increased by his recent re-election, Stevens will be listening to what NIGA attendees have to say about Internet gaming and economic development.

Stevens is now serving his sixth two-year term as chairman of NIGA. He was re-elected last year at the trade show by a vote of 121-14. Due in part to challenger Ivan Makil, a long-time Arizona tribal leader, the position of chairman was elavated by creating a contest that was energetic and focused. Many considered the race the most significant and anticipated one in recent NIGA history.

“The only thing I was concerned about,” Stevens shares, “was that a few people said we were not going in the right direction. Then I felt like they were saying that I was not serving Indian gaming as the tribal leaders directed. And that was the challenge and the hard part because I always strive to serve with diligence, energy and a strong focus to achieve the goals set for us by tribal leaders.”

In the end, the votes came in and gave Stevens validation that he was, in fact, doing his job and doing it well. The hallways and trade show floor buzzed of the news of Stevens’ victory. Inside the banquet hall, cheers erupted and the line began to form.

“That strong tribal endorsement gives me energy to work hard every day. It was one of the most significant moments of my life,” Stevens fondly recalls. “When the election results were released, it was a tremendous vote of confidence. People were cheering, my wife hugged me and so did my friends and family. Then I remember all the people lining up. It was a humbling moment, and it plays over and over in my heart. It was awesome.”

Stevens says he was pleased to know that NIGA’s leadership believes in him. “I always believed that I was doing my job with strength, energy and passion,” Stevens added. “With that validation from the election, I knew that tribal leaders felt the same way.”

More importantly, he believes the vote said that tribal leaders are happy with the work the executive board and NIGA staff are doing under his leadership. “We are doing the right thing, and they respect that,” Stevens says. “We won our legislative battles. We stood on the front lines assertively and respectfully to represent Indian country with dignity and integrity.”

Stevens first began serving in a leadership role in Washington, D.C., in 1995 as the first vice president of the National Congress of American Indians. Before that, he watched his father, who was a powerful advocate for tribal governments, and the NIGA original and continued leaders, who brought advocacy to a new level. Stevens says he learned from NIGA’s original leaders and works hard each day to carry out the ideals they used to create and grow the association. This is why, Stevens says, he took the election so seriously. “I love my job and I love to work for our member tribes. I strive to make the direction of our tribal leaders a reality.”

Moving forward, Stevens says that although he’s a 52-year-old who learned from “the old school era,” he strives for NIGA to be contemporary and use every modern asset to get the work done in Washington, D.C., and state capitals. But he plans to keep those “old school” principles. “Tim Wapato (who was executive director of NIGA from 1993 to 1998) and my dad (Ernest Stevens Sr.) both told me ‘You can never hold enough meetings. Get tribal leaders into the meeting room, develop a cohesive and focused strategy, and convince U.S. Congress that we mean business; we’re direct, we’re respectful, and we’re here to protect sovereignty.’”

At the convention and trade show this year, Stevens plans to look to NIGA’s leadership to tell him, the executive board and NIGA staff where they want the association to go and what they want the association to do. To those who voted for a change in leadership, Stevens says: “I invite any one of those folks to join us and be a part of making Indian country stronger. We embrace you and respect your voices.”

>One of those issues is clearly Internet gaming. Stevens says i-gaming is a good thing because it has created a new strategy that NIGA uses to educate lawmakers about Indian gaming and Indian sovereignty. Stevens has also rallied support for an Internet Gaming and Economic Development subcommittee within NIGA. The association’s leadership endorsed the plan, and the formation of the group is moving forward. The need could not be greater, given the recent Department of Justice (DoJ) reinterpretation of the Wire Act of 1961, which many say will change everything.

In a recent statement to Congress, Professor I. Nelson Rose said tribes “have every reason to worry” about Internet gaming and the reinterpretation of the Wire Act. This is because it is likely, under current circumstances, that courts would limit tribes to taking online bets only from players physically located on tribal lands at the time of play.

As Rose explains in his statement:

“Tribes are not prohibited from taking bets from throughout a state.  But that would be a privilege granted by a state, not a right.  And, the state could not be sued for bad faith if it refused to let tribes accept off-reservation wagers.  This puts tribes in the position of having to compete for a limited number of Internet gambling licenses, to be issued by not always friendly state governments.”

Stevens listens to a congressional speaker at the 2012 Legislative Summit in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of Michael Woestehoff, National Indian Gaming Association.Stevens says he is taking the DoJ’s reinterpretation and the conversation surrounding it very seriously. He is facing the issue head on. “I think it’s the real deal for one reason: Folks are talking about it and trying to do something about it,” Stevens explains. “And they’re doing all of this without taking into full account tribal government’s role in this potential business.”

Stevens’ message to lawmakers right now is not that NIGA is opposed to i-gaming. He is asking lawmakers to respect tribal government as governments with independent regulatory authority, sovereign tax status and full and fair access to the Internet.

“Further, any legislation addressing such Internet gaming should respect the essential governmental framework that was struck in the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act between the interests of the tribes, the states and the federal government. And that is the need for specific legislation facing tribes and Internet gaming. ”

Recent testimony by University of Utah’s Dean of Law Alex T. Skibine echoed Stevens sentiments on the subject of Internet gaming:

“Tribes should continue to be recognized as sovereign governments with the authority to regulate gaming occurring on the reservations; they should be able to conduct Internet gaming with customers located in any jurisdiction and that it should be regulated jointly by the NIGC and the Indian tribes operating such Internet gaming.”

Stevens says he and the NIGA staff in D.C. have put tremendous energy toward Internet gaming. They are working to stay informed and organized while analyzing the i-gaming industry and sentiments regarding it in Congress.

“We can’t stand around and just wait for legislation,” Stevens adds. “We have to focus on what can we do for tribes, for Indian gaming and Indian business. So that’s what I want to take into our upcoming convention. I want to say, let’s be ready for Internet gambling, federal tax issues, land into trust, NIGC issues and provide opportunities for economic development. We are moving our industry forward!”

Stevens pictured with his father, on left. Photo courtesy of Dennis King, people in and out of the gaming industry see regulated Internet gaming as a way to save state budgets and bring more money into the gaming industry. Stevens doesn’t exactly see it that way for tribal governments, as he says: “I don’t think Internet saves our world. I think that Indian economic development and tribal enterprises is what saves our world. We have great potential to move our tribal economies forward through our own efforts. Naturally, we demand fairness and full access to new technologies, including the Internet.”

At the trade show and conference this year, Stevens encourages attendees to really take time to meet with members of the American Indian Business Network. They are going to have booths set up on the trade show floor and speak in conference sessions. “Take advantage of that and spend some time on the floor to get to know the people and businesses there,” he encourages.

Stevens points out that Indian gaming has helped Indian country show the world that tribal enterprises mean business, jobs and a brighter future for tribal communities. He noted that over the last 10 years, Indian gaming revenues have increased 150 percent to more than $26 billion dollars in 2010. “We’ve proven that we’re professional, well regulated and have the highest integrity,” Stevens says. “So let’s branch out and create new jobs and opportunities for our people now and our future generations. As we say, ‘Unto the Seventh Generation.’”