The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 was passed to promote tribal “economic development, self-sufficiency, and strong tribal governments”. The Act was passed to enhance a renewal of sovereignty for Native American tribes. Has the Act been successful? The following sovereignty checklist serves as a guide to answer that question.
Consider the positive:
Gambling money means tribal survival. If the people of a nation cannot survive, they cannot be sovereign. Survival means food, housing, and medical care. Money from gambling activities has been placed into programs meeting basic needs. Survival is threatened by substance abuse – drugs, alcohol. Gambling revenues are used for treatment and prevention programs.
Gambling money means economic opportunity. Without jobs in their homelands, peoples gave up their nationalism by leaving. Gambling has brought jobs to Native lands. Jobs have given members of Nations an incentive to return home and renew native nationalism.
Gambling revenue is invested in other enterprises to gain a diversity of employment and secure a stable economic basis for the future.
Revenue allows tribes to choose the direction of economic development. Before gambling, many felt pressured to accept any economic opportunity. They allowed lands to be strip-mined, grazed, or timbered in nonecological ways, polluted with garbage and industrial wastes. One tribe explored the prospects of having a brothel.
Gambling money gives educational opportunities. Tribes use funds for books, computers, new desks, new roofs, remodeled halls, and plumbing for schools. Schools serve tribes with both cultural and vocational education.
Revenues allow tribes to make efforts to reestablish original land bases. They hire archaeologists to identify traditional lands. Lost lands must be the most vital symbol of lost sovereignty, and now through gambling, a measure of sovereignty is being returned.
Reservation gambling focuses upon cultural restoration activities. Money is spent on museum buildings that chronicle Native history. Tribes are turning funds to educational programs to reestablish their languages.
Sovereignty is political. The money of gambling allows tribes to assert all manner of legal issues in courts and in front of other policy makers. Gambling has also provided a catalyst for the creation of the National Indian Gaming Association in 1983. The Association has participated as a serious lobbying group within the American political system.
Economic power is directed at state and local government treasuries. Tribes bring several economic benefits to local and state governments. Gambling employment has resulted in reduced welfare rolls. Gambling tribes give state and local governments payments in lieu of taxes for services they would otherwise receive at no cost. This money is important, and the payments give the tribes a new measure of influence in relationships with these governments.
The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act has lent itself to an expansion of Native American sovereignty by requiring American state governments to deal one-on-one with tribes on an equal footing basis.
In gambling, however, there is a danger to the renewal of Native sovereignty. Consider these items:
Native gambling presents opportunities for exploitation of tribes. Native Americans must also be critically aware that any gambling enterprise can be a magnet for scam artists and thieves of all sorts. Although the overall record of Native gambling is good, there is some evidence that thievery has occurred at gaming facilities.
Gambling operations can mean less sovereignty if tribes in quest of economic resources willingly yield authority to nonnative governments.
Gambling has torn some tribes apart. It can be a divisive issue, as many Native Americans oppose gambling for a variety of reasons – economic, social, cultural. One tribe found that members who lived in an area close to major highway access points tried to separate and form a new reservations because they could reap a greater share of the casino benefits. The collective good was being set aside, because gambling had placed a dollar sign in front of them.
Internal divisiveness regarding tribal gambling comes over the issue of how to distribute the gaming profits. Where tribes neglect collective concerns – education, health, housing, substance abuse – and instead direct the bulk of the revenues to per capita distribution programs, they may not be building sovereignty.
Gambling can tear apart Native cultures.  Several tribes resisted having gaming operations because gambling itself violates religious beliefs, and operations would be seen as desecrations of lands. Others share those attitudes but allow the gambling because they desire economic rewards. Gambling opens up lands to outsiders. They come in buses and automobiles that cause congestion and pollution. They bring drinking and drug abuse behaviors. They engage in gambling. These behaviors serve as model behaviors for members of tribes, especially the young.
Gambling jobs may not be the best building blocks for sovereignty. Many of the jobs do not require intensive training – which may be good; however, the skills may not be transferable. Unless revenues are utilized to develop a diversified economic base, the concentration on gambling jobs may only create trained incapacities.
Sovereignty for tribes is diminished if the definition of what is a Native American can be so inclusive as to remove the unique qualities of the tribes’ political position. The quest for gambling opportunities has brought many strange folks out of the woodwork, claiming that they constitute a Native nation.
Native gambling can invite a backlash. Non-Natives have a five-century track record of taking any benefit they see in the hands of Native Americans away from them.
Sovereignty comes with international recognition and open diplomatic relationships. Gambling presents an ultimate danger to sovereignty if gambling Native nations see in their new economic power a weapon for dominating their neighbors rather than a new opportunity to build cooperative relations on an international basis.

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