Remembering a Modern Day Warrior: S. Timothy Wapato

In late April, one of my greatest mentors, S. Timothy Wapato, passed on to the spirit world and left many of us with fond memories of the great legacy he leaves behind. Wapato was a family man, a humble man and one who cared for Native America.

Throughout my tenure as the chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association, Wapato was always there to bring his knowledge, vision and guidance to me with the greatest of integrity. Wapato was a man of vision, a true warrior for Indian nations. He was a man of action, who put himself on the frontline and made his vision a reality. He had an overwhelming passion and love for Indian people, and his respect for our sovereignty was deeply ingrained in his heart. He was a champion for us all and will always be remembered for his leadership.

The stellar success of the Indian gaming industry and the impact of the National Indian Gaming Association can be traced to the leadership of then-NIGA Chairman Richard Hill, Wapato, his wife A. Gay Kingman, and a number of tribal leaders who were approached by tribal nations with the endorsement of key tribal leaders to promote the force of Indian gaming, sovereignty and true self-reliance through tribal government gaming by working to re-establish NIGA in Washington, D.C.

With his trademark determination and good-natured wit, Wapato began rebuilding NIGA literally from the shoeboxes and file cabinets of his apartment in Washington, D.C. During the initial years of NIGA, he and his wife kept meticulous records on their own and with very little pay or resources while they continuously and vigilantly defended tribes’ sovereign right to engage in and regulate gaming. In those early years, Wapato and his wife were constantly outspent by the opponents of Indian gaming and tribal sovereignty. However, through their long hours of hard work, they never lost a battle on Capitol Hill and were able to maintain the integrity of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act from anti-gaming amendments.
The offices that NIGA owns today on Capitol Hill are a direct result of Wapato’s foresight and the vision developed through countless hours of meetings around the family’s kitchen table. In 1995, NIGA was the first Indian organization to purchase and own property on Capitol Hill, greatly expanding its efforts in Congress to spread the word about the positive impact of Indian gaming. Wapato and his wife had turned NIGA from an organization run out of their living room into a powerful national organization for Indian tribes with offices right in the heart of power on Capitol Hill.

As NIGA’s first executive director, Wapato worked diligently with the guidance of then-Chairman Rick Hill to provide the leadership, direction and guidance that we carry on today. They developed and directed a strategy for a coordinated effort among tribes to educate Congress and the president about tribal sovereignty and the commitments this country made to Indian country through treaties, executive orders and federal law. Under Wapato’s guidance as executive director, he led a coalition of tribes, gaming industry leaders and congressmen that were effective time and again in stopping attempted anti-Indian gaming legislation. Wapato and his wife’s strategies and recommendations were a blueprint for NIGA’s operations in the future, as we continue to defend tribal sovereignty from harmful legislation.

Wapato’s relationship with the national press gained him recognition and helped smooth over the public’s uneasiness about gaming on Indian reservations. Wapato’s intelligence and quick wit helped him develop enduring relationships with the media. In April 1994, NIGA received the national Creativity in Public Relations Award in New York City for a campaign/strategy Wapato and his wife implemented to educate the public on Indian gaming.

A major program developed under Wapato’s guidance as executive director was to assist tribes, which remains in place to this day. He developed an educational department within NIGA to offer courses, workshops and technical training to help educate tribes, states and Indian casino employees on a wide range of topics central to the sovereign role.

One of Wapato’s greatest accomplishments was his success in establishing NIGA as a powerful coalition of tribes that works in unison to make decisions to protect tribal sovereignty. One of the best examples of his leadership was his ability to stop bad legislation in the mid-1990s that would have placed a federal tax on all Indian businesses. For two years, the Ways and Means Committee in Congress attempted to first tax Indian gaming. When the tribes fought down the Indian gaming tax, Congress tried to tax all Indian businesses, but Wapato led the fight and his leadership prevented the tax.

With then-Chairman Hill and Indian tribes across the country, Wapato was a key player in coordinating the fight to preserve the status of tribal government revenues as sovereign funds free from federal and state taxation. In Wapato’s view, sovereign Indian nation revenues are fully accounted for through our own essential tribal government purposes: police and fire protection, education, health care, housing, child and elder care, transportation, water and sanitation services, and cultural revitalization. As he saw it, there is no more room for federal taxation of tribal government revenues than there is for tribal government taxation of federal revenues.

Wapato was known for the tough battles he fought to maintain the United States’ respect for Indian nations as sovereigns. He instilled in all around him the vision that tribal sovereignty is non-negotiable, and treatment of Indian tribes as governments is the only acceptable outcome.

Wapato dedicated his career in Washington, D.C., to educating members of Congress and the Senate about tribal governments, tribal culture and Indian gaming. Wapato said, “Our purpose in life is to dispel ignorance, and it looks like we’ll never be out of a job.” He knew that Indian gaming was a path for tribal governments to control their own destinies. In his view, Indian gaming provided the resources essential for true self-determination.

In 1998, Wapato resigned from NIGA following a legacy that saw the creation of NIGA at his kitchen table to its rise as a national power with offices and property on Capital Hill. And today the organization I am proud to chair, the National Indian Gaming Association, represents a strong economic force. In fact, our recent analysis of the economic impact of Indian gaming in 2008 tells an exciting story of growth and promise. Last year alone, Indian gaming generated more than $27 billion in gross revenues and provided more than 700,000 jobs nationwide to both Indian and non-Indian people.

Up until his death, Wapato remained active in NIGA, the National Congress of American Indians, veterans affairs and tribal advocacy. Wapato also served as a mentor and role model to the young generations of upcoming tribal sovereignty advocates and leaders.

While Indian country collectively mourns Wapato’s passing, his life’s work and dedication continues to serve as inspiration to all of those who knew Wapato and are touched by the legacy he left behind. Our greatest gift to his legacy is to continue to follow the vision of this great warrior and those who stood with him to fight for Indian country. It is an honor to follow in his legacy to keep his light burning and to know that he was our champion in Indian country. I am honored to have learned from this great warrior, leader and teacher.

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