NIGA: Nurturing a Culture of Community

Asked to define the National Indian Gaming Association’s (NIGA) plan of approach for the year in just one word, Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr. says, “Unity. It’s all about unity and building consensus.” From speaking with him and Jason Giles, NIGA’s executive director, it is evident that this sense of community—a unified community—is important to the association. Even Stevens’ and Giles’ approach to this article reflected the emphasis on unity; neither wished to be lauded for his own work or thoughts, both seeing themselves solely as representatives. Stevens was quick to inform me that NIGA is comprised of “a solid group of member tribes, tribal leaders and an executive board and staff that are dedicated to our mission.”
So what exactly does Stevens mean by unity? “Our member tribes represent diverse communities with wide-ranging needs and priorities,” he explains. “We unite behind our mission and our core principles, which are to protect tribal sovereignty and preserve the rights of tribal governments to economically develop and improve our communities.” Those in Indian gaming are proud of the work that NIGA has done and continues to do. Knute Knudson, IGT vice president of Native American development, told us: “Chairman Stevens and Jason Giles, under the guidance of NIGA’s executive board, are outstanding advocates for tribal sovereignty—sovereignty on which tribal government gaming is based. IGT is proud of our support for NIGA, which began at NIGA’s founding and continues to the present.”

With a number of significant issues on the agenda for the coming year, and a continually evolving gaming industry, Stevens thinks it is more crucial than ever that the many diverse tribal gaming governments speak with a unified voice to policymakers in Washington. Tribes may have different approaches on how to address a particular issue, but Stevens has seen in his 12 years as chairman of NIGA that the core principle of sovereignty ultimately unites tribal governments. His confidence is not misplaced. Leaders of other tribes and tribal associations trust that NIGA will represent them well. Valerie Spicer, executive director for the Arizona Indian Gaming Association put the thoughts that many shared into words, saying: “The National Indian Gaming Association is an integral element to the voice of tribes in D.C. Not every tribe has the wherewithal to have representation in D.C., and NIGA makes sure every voice is heard.” They are all working toward a common purpose: to ensure a stable economic environment for those living and working on their reservation, to enhance the opportunities available to tribal citizens and to increase an understanding of tribal governments and tribal sovereignty.

Supported by Giles and the rest of the staff at NIGA, Stevens hopes to continue nurturing a culture of community among all tribes and those who support them. His unfaltering, continuous commitment to Indian country is no surprise to those who know him, or knew his father before him. “I come from a family of people that have done a lot to make a difference in their community,” he shared. “My father’s work in Washington before me is unparalleled. He worked under, I believe, at least three different presidential administrations and made a lot of change.” His saying this reflects just how encompassing this idea of community is, including even the generations to come. Stevens is fueled by a desire to match what his father achieved for his son’s generation. “I’ll always be proud to walk in the shadow of my father,” he said. “I use his teachings in all that I do, but at the same time, I maintain the activist mindset of my mother. Both of their bottom lines were, do all that you can every day to help improve your community from the moment you wake until you lay your head to rest.” It is this kind of mindset, ambition and leadership that drives NIGA, and its efforts.


Talking with Stevens on the same day as President Obama’s State of the Union address, it was only natural that the impact of this administration on Indian country was discussed. Stevens voiced his pleasure for the president’s re-election last year and said he hopes the Obama administration will continue to work on advancing policies in support of Indian country. Reflecting on the past year, Stevens said, “President Obama made promises in his first term to Indian country and he has kept them.” This is a common theme heard throughout conversations with various leaders in Indian country. Many agree that Obama’s first administration had a positive impact on tribal communities and expect to see him do even more this time around.

Giles elaborated on the achievements Indian country has seen under the president: “From a policy standpoint, the president got his healthcare bill passed, and part of the health care package was a permanent reauthorization of the Indian Healthcare Improvement Act, which was long overdue. For more than 20 years, Indian country has sought to get this into law, and President Obama finally did that for us. That’s his signature achievement.”

Originally passed in 1976, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act (IHCIA) helps the Indian Health Service provide the highest possible standards of healthcare for American Indians and Alaskan Natives. Prior to Obama codifying the provisions of the IHCIA into law, it was dependent upon Congress for the bill to be reauthorized every few years. The permanent reauthorization removes any chance that congressional gridlock will threaten future funding of tribal health care programs, which are codifications of federal treaty promises to Indian country. The president discussed the importance of this step in a statement released shortly after this watershed moment, saying the bill “permanently reauthorizes the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. Our responsibility to provide health services to American Indians and Alaskan Natives derives from the nation-to-nation relationship between the federal and tribal governments. And today, with this bill, we have taken a critical step in fulfilling that responsibility by modernizing the Indian health care system and improving access to health care for American Indians and Alaska Natives.”1

It is the president’s respect for tribal sovereignty, his understanding of the government’s responsibilities toward them and a desire to actively engage with the Indian community that garners him so much respect among tribes. Giles told us that a signature event of this administration is that the president meets once a year with tribal leaders in Washington as a means of familiarizing himself with tribal leaders and tribal issues. Stevens shared with us that he was invited to the recent presidential inauguration and was pleased to see just how many leaders from Indian country had been invited. He was particularly proud to see President of the National Congress of American Indians Jefferson Keel sitting near Obama with some of the most powerful people in the world. “This reflects the important light in which Indian country is viewed and how seriously this administration values the government-to-government relationship with Indian country,” Stevens said.

Moving Forward

Despite the advancements Indian country has seen under the Obama administration, there are still a number of issues that need to be addressed, primarily matters concerning land into trust, IRS audits and internet gaming. Giles took care to expound on each issue, explaining why these three are the most prominent for Indian country. “With regard to land into trust, the Carcieri v. Salazar case has limited the Department of the Interiors’ ability to take land into trusts for certain Indian tribes,” he said. “This needs to be addressed very quickly and we’d like the administration to put more effort into getting it through Congress.” The now infamous Carcieri ruling held that the federal government could only take land into trust for tribes that were “under federal recognition” when the Indian Reorganization Act became law in 1934. This term, “under federal recognition” is not defined in law and, more troubling, the government did not officially maintain a list of tribes until 1992. This decision affects a core aspect of tribal sovereignty: the ability of tribes to restore their homelands. Thus, it is essential that congress address this decision quickly.

IRS audits of tribal programs have steadily become a concern for some tribes. Giles shared: “The internal revenue service has been—I’d say for the past eight years—auditing tribal governments with respect to health, education, welfare programs and other services that tribal governments provide to their citizens. In a lot of cases, they’re saying if the tribe has a plan that benefits its tribal citizens on the reservation, it should be counted as taxable federal income for those tribal citizens. When the Affordable Health Care Act passed, we were able to get a provision in there exempting tribal health care benefits from federal taxation. That solved a healthcare problem, but now they’ve turned their attention to things such as educational programs, housing programs, cultural programs and other benefits, so it’s a troubling issue for Indian country.”

Why the IRS has engaged in this confusing matter of taxation is a bit of a mystery, but Giles prefers to look on the positive side when attempting to understand how this all began. “Admittedly, it’s all happening at the field level—at the field offices and regional offices,” he told us. “From the Obama administration to the top level of the treasury, they’re saying the right thing; they talk about respecting tribal governments in the same way they respect state governments.”

Giles certainly agrees with this outlook: “The federal government does not tax state governments, and constitutional principle holds that federal government should not be able to tax tribal governments. This is something that we thought was crystal clear. On top of the respect for tribes as governments, the United States owes treaty and trust obligations to Indian tribes. Falling short of these obligations makes absolutely no sense.”

Even if this is all just a misunderstanding on some level waiting to cleared up, it is not being addressed swiftly enough. In 2012, the IRS targeted some of the poorest communities in Indian country. Giles explained that while some tribes are making gains economically, many more are just breaking even and cannot afford to suspend programs and redirect money to hire tax attorneys. “So it’s really just an injustice at this point,” Giles stated strongly. “We may be a gaming association, but first and foremost we have to protect the economic opportunity of all tribal governments, and that’s why our mission is also to defend and protect sovereignty and tribal economic rights.”

Internet gaming is another hot topic for tribal gaming and Giles was eager to discuss it. “It’s important to note that Internet gaming been an issue in Congress since the late 1990s, long before I even got to the National Indian Gaming Association,” he said. It is after the Department of Justice’s change of heart on the Wire Act, however, that things truly heated up. The decision sounded the alarm that began a race for a piece of the online gambling pie. While many tribes would gladly engage with this new market, there are a number of principles that they are adamant must be explicitly stated in any Internet gaming legislature. “This is an issue that tribes have come to a central position on, and NIGA has been pushing that consensus for three years now,” Giles explained. “There are two main principles that any new law must contain. First and foremost, Indian tribes must be respected as governments. By this I mean that all tribes must be afforded the right to both operate and regulate the new industry in the same way that we operate and regulate gaming under IGRA. Tribal gaming regulators and commissions have used state-of-the-art regulatory surveillance and compliance technology for three decades. They must be given the same access to the marketplace as everyone else.”

The second major principle is that tribes cannot be taxed. This should not be a point of contention as the United States Constitution and 14th amendment clearly states that tribes and activity on tribal land cannot be taxed. Recent issues with regard to taxation however have put tribes on their guard and it is wise for them to want this point included.
With regard to entering a future i-gaming industry (if one was to open), Giles said: “I think there are many tribes that are ready and willing to compete in an Internet poker marketplace. They feel like they have the branding and the expertise. However, at this point it’s more about fair access to the market. Recent poker-only bills gave a head start to large corporations and a handful of state governments.”

It is essential that any Internet gaming legislation respect tribal autonomy and it is more important that NIGA members tackle these issues together. Stevens reiterates that while each tribe is an independent sovereign with separate interests, they are united under a common purpose: supporting and nurturing their tribal communities. Stevens eloquently summed it up, stating: “It is imperative that we walk together while we tackle specific issues such as taxation, Internet gaming and restoring our homelands. We don’t want any special treatment; we just want treatment that’s respectable to our tribal governments. Our ancestors fought, and many died, to protect the right of tribes to govern our communities and determine our way of life. It’s a sacred honor for all tribal leaders to maintain, protect and strengthen those rights.”


NIGA must be admired for viewing the betterment of all tribal communities as its primary goal. This emphasis on community is one that has marked and continues to define the association. And community, for Stevens, exists on many different levels, both internal and external to the association. He shared a truly heartfelt explanation of what NIGA’s role is, saying, “It’s all about our community, it’s all about people helping people and none of that is restrictive to gender or to the color of our skin. We’re all in this together. This is what I try to teach the people I impact.” It is evident that this concept of community must also be passed on to later generations. “The bottom line for me is that we secure opportunities for our future, so we can leave a better world for our children,” Stevens concluded.

Aside from continuing to make Indian country’s presence in Washington known, Stevens and Giles are both heading a number of initiatives aimed at nurturing and fostering this spirit of unity among its members, Indian country and non-tribal entities. “A major initiative right now,” Giles shared, “is working to help tribes enact legislation aimed at stopping violence against Native women. It’s an important domestic violence bill with some very important tribal sovereignty provisions.” Stevens followed up to explain that although NIGA is primarily a gaming association, these issues are important because the association is all about community. “Women are pillars of support within Indian country and it is important for us that they be protected,” he said.

Another important goal is one that Stevens has been working on tirelessly since he first became chairman. “We want to make people aware of what Indian country is all about and increase their understanding of tribal gaming,” he said. “We need to continuously mobilize on information and education.” Having lost a number of senators who worked hard for Indian country in the transition from the 112th to 113th Congress, Stevens sees this as an increasingly important objective. “It will be impossible to replace the phenomenal leaders dedicated their careers to serving and standing strong with Indian country,” he said. “These champions educated their colleagues about Indian country from the inside. At least for now, we have to make it our priority to educate the new Congress from our perspective on our priorities.”

The priorities to which he refers are of course the aforementioned issues that Indian country has to tackle. “We still have a lot of friends on both sides of the aisle, but we lost some friends who were supportive of, or at least willing to listen to, the basic foundations of tribal sovereignty,” Stevens told us. In addition to informing members of congress about our priorities, we also have to step back and lay the basic foundations to help them understand the role that tribal governments play in the federal legal system, starting with the mention of Indian tribes as separate sovereign governments in the United States Constitution. Our ancestors were engaged in politics, policies and economic development long before there was even a Constitution. The European nations of England, France and Spain all recognized tribes as separate governments, entering into treaties to secure peace and economic stability.” By educating recently elected congresspersons on Indian country and related matters, NIGA can introduce new members into its community who can help advance tribal rights.

Giles, a relative newcomer to his role as executive director (a newcomer when compared to Stevens who is in his sixth term as NIGA chairman), has a personal aspiration. “I want to continue to expand the organization,” he explains. “There are 565 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. and about 245 tribes have gaming operations. Out of that 245 we count 184 as members of our organization. So we have room to grow our membership and then we can also continue to expand the economic opportunities to all of Indian country.” NIGA conferences, seminars and its annual trade shows, in Giles’ opinion, provide a great means for outreach on Indian gaming and economic development issues, and he hopes to continue to grow these avenues of education.


In a review of the Western Indian Gaming Conference in this issue of Casino Enterprise Management, Valerie Red-Horse said, “When we have agreement and unification amongst the tribal community, historically it means action and progress will soon follow. We are a powerful force when unified and it was extremely refreshing to hear a consensus [at the conference].” These statements vocalize what many feel; the Indian gaming community is unified and prepared to tackle their challenges and achieve their goals. NIGA stands ready as the voice for its members in Washington and is committed to fulfilling its objectives of increasing education and awareness of tribal gaming. This approach will help nurture a culture of community within NIGA, throughout Indian country and even throughout the United States, as this ambitious organization seeks to increase communication with the public, Congress and the Obama administration.

Stevens explains: “We’ve had an unprecedented level of dialogue with the White House, the National Indian Gaming Commission and various agencies. Together we are working to strengthen the United States’ government-to-government relationship with Indian Country. This is great and on the verge of being historic, but we still have work to do. The bottom line is that when it’s all done, the eight years of a new relationship with America, we have to bring something home. These policies have to work on the ground in our communities. And part of that is our responsibility as leaders, as parents, grandparents, community members and activists. We have to work together to positively impact the next seven generations of our communities.” And with Stevens, Giles and NIGA continuing to work hard on this front, we’re certain great things will continue to come to both tribal gaming and the industry as a whole.


Leave a Comment