In late July, tribal leaders will gather in Washington, D.C. for the National Indian Gaming Association’s (NIGA) Summer Legislative Summit. NIGA hosts two legislative summits per year to provide a forum for tribal leaders to engage Congress and the administration on issues most important to Indian country. We have invited numerous senators from the finance, appropriations and Indian affairs committees, as well as representatives who are members of the Congressional Native American Caucus. Others from the natural resources, education and the workforce, judiciary, and ways and means committees also have been invited. Attendees will discuss key issues including Internet gaming and parity for tribal governments in the National Labor Relations Act. Restoring the land-into-trust process for all federally recognized tribes and implementation of the Tribal General Welfare Exclusion Act are topics also on the NIGA Summer Legislative Summit agenda.
Internet gaming is consistently on our radar and is intensely discussed at NIGA meetings. It is only natural that tribes are concerned when Congress considers changing the playing field. No other form of economic development has been as successful in Indian country as gaming. Indian gaming provides the revenue for tribal governments to operate essential programs and services in their communities and has helped rebuild tribal infrastructure. Internet gaming has the potential to significantly change the gaming industry in America.
So far in the 114th Congress, only one piece of Internet gaming legislation has received a hearing, House Resolution 707 Restoration of America’s Wire Act—a bill focusing on prohibition. While Congress is moving cautiously, we follow the issue closely and continue to monitor its progress. Our actions are governed by the Principles of Sovereignty for Internet Gaming Legislation as adopted by our member tribes. NIGA’s principles simply defend tribes’ rights as sovereigns and demand equal treatment. To date, there has not been a single Internet gaming bill to satisfy the requirements. Each tribal government represents an independent sovereign and will decide what is best for their community, but we all stand united in the defense of tribal sovereignty.
Defending tribal sovereignty, of course, extends far beyond Internet gaming. At our Winter Legislative Summit in February, we heard from Rep. Todd Rokita of Indiana, and at the Tribal Membership Meeting in March we heard from Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas on bills they have introduced to provide parity for tribal governments in the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The bills, both titled the “Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act,” amend the NLRA to specifically list wholly-owned tribal enterprises operating on tribal lands as employers exempt from the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
For nearly 70 years, the NLRB rightfully exempted federally recognized sovereign tribes from the application of the NLRA. However, in May 2004, the NLRB, in a ruling involving the San Manuel Indian Bingo and Casino, ignored its own precedent and applied the NLRA to on-reservation tribal government enterprises. The NLRB’s 2004 San Manuel ruling was a direct attack on tribal sovereignty and the constitutional status of Indian tribes as governments. The Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act would reverse that misguided decision to clarify that Indian tribes are governments for purposes of the NLRA. The legislation is solely about tribal government sovereignty.
Another key issue NIGA will address is the Carcieri v. Salazar Supreme Court ruling, which has led to uncertainty surrounding the ability of the Secretary of the Interior to place land into trust for tribes recognized after the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934. The uncertainty created by the Carcieri decision has slowed the development of housing, education, health care and other much-needed services on tribal lands and has prevented financing for many economic development projects in Indian country.
To directly address the Carcieri decision, Reps. Tom Cole of Oklahoma (a member of the Chickasaw Nation and Co-Chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus) and Betty McCollum of Minnesota (Co-Chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus) have introduced bills to reaffirm the authority of the Secretary of Interior to take land into trust for all federally recognized Indian tribes, effectively reversing the Supreme Court’s disastrous Carcieri decision. Each representative has cosponsored the other’s bill and has urged the immediate passage of either version. Recently, Sen. Jon Tester of Montana has introduced a similar bill in the Senate.
Similar efforts have been slowed by some in Congress who equate the tribal land-into-trust process with Indian gaming. NIGA will continue to educate those members that the Interior land-to-trust process is completely separate from decisions involving Indian gaming, which are made in accordance with the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) and Interior regulations implementing that Act. The IRA involves the restoration of tribal lands for housing, health care, education and other essential government purposes.
As we look forward to this year’s Summer Legislative Summit, it is also a good time to reflect on the key issue we targeted at last year’s summit: the Tribal General Welfare Exclusion Act (TGWEA). Last July we were confronted with a Congress that many had consistently labeled as the least productive in history, but we saw opportunity and developed an outreach plan that targeted House and Senate leaders to urge a vote on the TGWEA. The unity of Indian country behind this historic bill lead to its passage in September 2014, a unity that we must replicate to ensure that the act is implemented by the Treasury Department as intended.
The unity created at last year’s summit led to the passage of a monumental bill for Indian country. This year, we must strengthen our unity and urge Congress to respect our inherent sovereignty by rejecting and Internet gaming legislation that does not meet our principles, and to pass the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act and a clean Carcieri fix. When we are united on our goals, we get a lot done.