Gambling Guide to Tribal Casinos

Picture of a Man Thinking and a Native American Casino
Since they were first legalized in the late 1980s, nearly three dozen states have established tribal casinos. As the US gaming industry continues to grow, even more states could join the bandwagon. With so many states offering some form of tribal casino gaming, it is important to understand what tribal casinos are before you gamble.

Despite being around for several decades, there are many misconceptions about Native American casinos. For instance, many people do not know what separates tribal gaming from other types of casinos. In this guide to tribal casino gaming, we will try to answer some of the FAQs about licensed Indian casinos.

What Is a Tribal Casino?

A tribal casino or other gaming operation is a licensed gambling operation that operates on tribal land. Since the operation is based on land with tribal sovereignty, federal and state governments have limited control over them. Instead, tribal casinos are regulated by the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC).

The NIGC was established to enforce the rules of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) of 1988. It oversees tribal casinos and enforces the rules of the IGRA as necessary. The Commission also provides training and assistance to tribal gaming operators.

Even before the IGRA was passed in 1988, Native American tribes were operating gaming halls. In the 1970s, many tribes opened bingo halls to help raise money for the tribe. Nowadays, the games a tribal gaming venue offers depend on its classification under the IGRA.

Tribal casinos come in many shapes and sizes. In many cases, tribal casinos are larger than commercial casinos, even those you find in Las Vegas. The largest tribal casino, Oklahoma’s WinStar World Casino, is also the largest casino in the world. In total, WinStar’s casino floor measures 370,000 square feet.

Previously, the record for the largest Indian casino was held by the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut. The Foxwood opened in 1986 as a bingo hall and added a casino in 1992. Five years later, tribal leaders added a hotel. For many years, the Foxwood was the only true casino resort outside of Las Vegas and Atlantic City.

How Are Tribal Casinos Different Than Other Casinos?

For bettors, tribal casinos can be a great way to win real money gambling without having to travel to Vegas or AC. However, tribal casinos are not as regulated as commercial casinos. For instance, tribes are allowed to set their own payment schedules games. This means that the odds may be different, for better or worse, than you are used to.

Another major difference players need to be prepared for is the size of tribal casinos. As we already talked about, many tribal casinos overshadow their commercial counterparts. However, an Indian casino’s size will largely depend on its classification. The better the classification, the more games they can offer.

From a casual player’s perspective, tribal casinos are largely the same as commercial casinos. However, behind the scenes, tribal and commercial operations are very different. For instance, as we mentioned earlier, tribal casinos are regulated by the NIGC. Commercial casinos on the other hand are subject to the gaming commission of the state they reside in.

Another major difference between tribal and commercial gaming operations is the taxes that are paid. Commercial casinos are subject to state or federal taxes. However, tribal casinos are exempt from those taxes. Instead, states will usually try to implement fees as part of the compact between the casino and the state. Employees and guests of the tribal casino still pay taxes on their paychecks and winnings, respectively.

What Are Tribal Gaming Classifications?

If you are considering going to a tribal consider, it is important to know what classification the casino has. A tribal casino’s classification will tell you the type of games it is allowed to operate. In turn, this will allow you to know the type of gaming experience you can expect.

The first type of Indian casino is Class I facilities. These operations are restricted to only traditional Indian gaming, such as those used in celebrations and ceremonies. Class I facilities can also offer social gaming for small prizes. They are not subject to IGRA requirements.

Class II Indian casinos can offer a much wider selection of games. They can offer bingo games and other games similar to bingo. For instance, a class II Tribal bingo hall could also offer pull tabs and punch boards.

However, class II tribal casinos are specifically forbidden from operating slot machines. Tribes must limit their games to ones allowed by the state they operate in. Also, the NIGC oversees tribes’ regulations of class II facilities.

Class III tribal casinos offer what is often called Vegas-style gaming. They are allowed to operate slot machines and table games, so long as the state permits those games. Also, tribes must agree to a compact with the state that is approved by the Secretary of the Interior. The tribes must then create an ordinance regarding class III gaming that is subject to NIGC approval.

Who Is Allowed to Operate a Tribal Casino?

Indian casinos operate on tribal land. However, that does not mean that only Native American tribes are allowed to be in charge of tribal casinos. While the tribe may own the casino, they can allow another entity to run it. For instance, Caesars Entertainment operates several tribal casinos including the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort in North Carolina.

Also, it is important to keep in mind that not all Native American tribes are allowed to open tribal casinos. A tribe must be considered “federally recognized” in order to open a tribal gaming operation. This can cause problems for smaller tribes that were not originally considered “federally recognized” by the US government. Cases regarding recognition status have gone all the way to the Supreme Court in the past.

Despite the restrictions on which tribes are eligible for casinos, plenty of tribes have gotten a piece of the action. Today, more than 200 Native American tribes operate Indian casinos in the US. As of 2020, there were a total of 525 tribal casinos throughout the US.

The state with the most tribal casinos is by far Oklahoma, which has 113 in total. Oklahoma is also the home of the biggest casino in the world, a tribal casino called the WinStar World Casino.

How do Tribes Use Their Profits from Casinos?

Since 1988, Native American tribes have taken advantage of the IGRA. In the nearly three and half decades since it was passed, tribal gaming has grown exponentially. It is estimated that tribal gaming is 300 times bigger now than it was in 1988.

There are hundreds of tribal casinos spread across the US. As a result, it should be no surprise that Indian casinos make up a large portion of US gaming revenue. In fact, tribal casinos consist of roughly 44% of all US gaming revenue each year.

As casinos on tribal land, Indian casinos do not pay taxes. This extra revenue helps them to fund tribal economic development projects. Native American tribes can use casino profits for a variety of projects including:

  • Infrastructure
  • Tribal government operations and other enterprises
  • Charitable causes
  • Social services and financial programs

All in all, a successful tribal casino can fund a major portion of a tribe’s needs. On top of funding projects, they also provide a source of employment for both tribal and non-tribal citizens. New tribal casinos can increase employment in an area by more than 25%.


Tribal casinos are popular in most US states. They offer a chance for both bettors and tribes to make real money from the gaming industry. For more on the world of casinos, take a look at our other casino blogs.