(This is the first in a two-part series; to read the followup click here: “NIGA’s New Mission, Part Two.”)
The National Indian Gaming Association needs a new mission—a makeover, if you will. As an advocate and protector of Indian gaming, NIGA’s new direction should serve to vertically integrate tribes into their own industry. There is a sense that the gaming-products and -service companies are influencing NIGA to maintain the status quo rather than move forward to assure that Indian country gets the full benefit of Indian gaming.
After reviewing the agenda online for NIGA’s annual Tradeshow and Convention in Phoenix, April 3 to 6, I wondered, Where are all the Indians? Was I reading the right agenda? Maybe I was looking at the trade-show lineup. I had come to expect the trade show to be dominated by non-Indian vendor companies and non-Indian executives since they comprise some 95 percent of the Indian gaming goods and services suppliers. But no—I was looking at the official agenda’s list of speakers and presenters in various breakout sessions.
There is a concentration of “regulatory” training sessions on the agenda (most of them dominated by non-Indian presenters). NIGA has to be cognizant of the regulatory needs of tribal gaming, but not to the point of usurping the role of the Indian gaming commissioners and regulators. I’ve spent 25 years advocating the necessity for keeping regulatory functions separate from the business side of Indian gaming. This drift of NIGA into the regulatory side of Indian gaming should be tempered by placing the responsibility where it belongs, with the commissioners and regulators. NIGA and the commissioners and regulators should avoid the appearance of dominance by the business side of the equation.
NIGA was chartered as an advocacy-membership association for the tribal owners of Indian gaming, mainly to protect and enhance the most successful Indian country economic initiative in the history of post-colonization Native America. The NIGA agenda for this convention reflects a continuing (unapproved) trend towards promotion of the non-Indian business interests that many feared, and some predicted, would result unless NIGA paid more attention to assisting tribe-owned and Indian-owned companies into the Indian gaming revenue stream.
We are all aware that NIGA depends much on the participation and generosity of the supply and service companies. That participation and generosity should continue. But in doing so, NIGA also serves the interests of non-Indian companies to maintain the status quo of Indian gaming, which also serves the interest of the NIGA tribes that have realized the bounty that Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was envisioned to facilitate. That partnership has become a powerful economic and political force. However, that power has yet to make its way down to the tribes that have been left behind as Indian gaming flourished. NIGA must remember that it depends on these tribes for political support—and the only way some of these tribes can get into the revenue chain is by the creation of businesses on isolated reservations to provide goods and services to the successful Indian gaming operations and their governments.
Criticism is not issued lightly from this pen. If I can’t propose an alternative to the status quo, I’d be the first to pat NIGA on the back and say “good job.” But there is already too much self-congratulation going on. The unfortunate truth is that an opportunity to build sustainable tribal economies around Indian gaming revenues is slipping away.
I am a Buy Indian/Buy Native advocate and an advocate of Indian and Tribal Preference in hiring, contracting and purchasing. When NIGA passed a resolution setting a 10 percent purchasing goal for its member tribes and their casinos from tribe- and Indian-owned businesses, I thought that was a great first step. As it turns out, it was about the only step. NIGA made a list of Indian vendors and then promptly recognized that there were not enough Indian vendor companies to even fulfill the minimalist 10 percent goal. Game over? No, it should not be “game over.” When we, from the have-not tribes, advocated for the 10 percent purchasing goal we urged NIGA to work on a strategy to create Indian vendor companies because we knew they would not magically appear out of nowhere. We also knew that, unless there were incentives or disincentives for the non-Indian vendor companies to help (or not help) create majority Indian-owned companies, it simply would not happen. It hasn’t happened. If the tribe- and Indian-owned vendors represented in the trade show amount to 10 percent of the total, I’ll eat this column with salt and pepper and a little Chianti! (nonalcoholic, of course).
NIGA needs a new mission. It needs to keep Indian gaming’s non-Indian advisors and vendors at arm’s length. It needs to continue its role as an industry “business” advocate and continue to protect Indian gaming from those who would destroy it. It needs to get out of the “regulatory” side and leave that to the commissioners and regulators, but support them. Most of all, it needs to adhere to its promises and make the non-Indian vendors of Indian gaming adhere to the Buy Indian/Buy Native Initiative.
Harold A. Monteau is a Chippewa Cree attorney who resides in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and was the chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission in the Clinton administration. He can be reached at email@example.com.