Indian country’s pecuniary advancements created by Indian gaming are well documented. Many tribes have taken full advantage of expanding and diversifying business ventures that now represent a sustainable economic base far greater than their initial casino enterprise. Such planning and financial discipline is commendable. Strong tribal leadership and the willingness to do what is in the best interest of the citizenry of those governments is usually the common thread of success for those tribes. Many times, however, decisions made by tribal councils to obtain such successful economic diversity come at a political price: risking their leadership positions by standing up to their constituents and saying no to either initiating per capita payments, or increasing them beyond sensible levels.
Unfortunately, many tribes today have lost that astute fiscal resolve. In its stead, per capita has become something so adverse amongst so many of our people that it now serves to hinder, disrupt and in some instances, even dismantle tribal governments. Disenrollment, political turmoil, government breakdowns, corruption, financial dependency and absolute greed has become the new “norm” for too many gaming tribes. I’ve witnessed more times than I care to admit, general councils literally holding tribal councils political hostage over per capita distributions. Chants of: “either pay us more per capita, or we’ll vote you out and replace you with someone who will” has become commonplace within many tribal communities. Sound familiar?
The truth of the matter is that per capita payments do little to improve our tribal communities, much less peoples’ lives. Yes, we have a sovereign right to establish per capita for our citizens, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s “the right thing to do.” Some of our most formidable leaders during the early years of Indian gaming argued against per capita. They understood that the net gaming profits from our casino operations were the financial gifts born from the struggles to evolve and develop this industry. Gaming was viewed as an important tool to address generational socio-economic disparity throughout Indian country. Gaming revenues were our way of lessening our dependency on federal funding sources, as well as our opportunity to strengthen and improve tribal government operations, which is a true exercise in sovereignty.
Many tribal governments realized that creating a system of per capita payouts to tribal citizens established nothing short of a tribally funded “welfare state.” Tribes that opposed and rejected per capita payments to their citizens early on were, by and large, the ones setting the standard for quality of life improvements within their communities. As a tribal citizen, enjoying this new influx of casino revenue meant that your basic needs in life were provided for, so long as you earned and/or qualified for such assistance. This included housing, education, health care, child care, elder assistance, business start-up assistance and a slew of other programs and services that casino revenues provided.
Today’s trend though seems to be growing more and more negative in regards to per capita outlays. We have families pitted against families fighting over who is and who is not a rightful citizen of their tribal government. Issues that were never in dispute before per capita payments were declared, now grow in volume and intensity. Disenrollment was extremely rare and when exercised, was for actual cause (no Indian blood quantum, dual enrollment, et cetera), not because of greed and corruption over per capita outlays. Such actions only serve to kill our native culture. We lose respect, credibility and support throughout the United States, especially within the federal government, and look absolutely ridiculous in the eyes of the world. A proud people we are not when we allow an infiltration of bad acts and bad actors to operate and control tribal governments, spurred on by overwhelming dictate from tribal citizens demanding more and more “free” money from their tribes.
So, what can be done to reverse this trend? Maybe we begin by nurturing and empowering stronger leadership within our tribal governments. Tribal councils willing to stand in unison against per capita payments, or increases thereto, is a good starting point. Regaining control of tribal finances and putting those dollars to work in other areas are also key goals. Tribes that utilize gaming proceeds to diversify economic portfolios, generate new business ventures, create jobs and grow tribal wealth beyond casino operations, better control per capita greed. Also, lest not forget that in most states, our monopoly over casino-style gaming enterprises is a very fragile one. At any time we can see changes to state gaming laws that allow expansion of casino-style gaming to non-Indian entities in and around population centers, as a way of increasing state tax revenues and thereby devastating a large percentage of Indian gaming as we know it.
Many of us have and will continue to dedicate our lives to prevent such circumstances from occurring. However, we need to do a much better job of perpetuating positive views and opinions in the public domain on how we utilize our gaming revenues. It’s a lot easier arguing protectionism of Indian gaming’s status quo in states around the country struggling to raise more revenues, if we are not constantly lambasted in the press over tribal infighting based on nothing more than greed. Better educating our people as to the pitfalls of per capita dependency is also critical. It’s a tough challenge for any tribal council to face, but in the end such efforts may save a tribal government and the communities it serves. Our fights to secure Indian gaming was to improve government operations, tribal business ventures and overall quality of life for our citizens; not to politically cannibalize ourselves through acts of voracity, corruption and the spread of destructive per capita dependency among our own people.
Leland McGee, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, is a principal of the Sequoyah Group, LLC, a native-owned national Indian economic, energy and gaming development consulting firm. He has served in Indian Affairs under both Clinton and Bush Administrations, served under the National Congress of American Indians, directed government affairs for a national Indian law firm, and has served as executive director and tribal administrator for federally recognized tribal governments.