Native Tribe Gambling in the United States

Native American Man Wearing a Headdress Next to a Casino

I live in North Texas, and I like to gamble. I live less than hour drive from Thackerville, Oklahoma, which is home to the WinStar.

Gambling wasn’t always this convenient for me. I would usually have to go through the tiresome motions of planning a trip to Vegas and then go on said trip.

And this is how it was for most of America for decades.

But we now have Native Tribe owned gambling businesses across the United States.

Native Tribe gambling has swept America by storm in the last 32 years.

I’m fascinated by the movement, the history, and how this trend is affecting the Native people in America.

This post offers a broad overview of the Native American gaming scene.

Native Americans and Gambling Overview

Native Tribe casinos and other gaming related businesses now make more profit than the casinos of Las Vegas and Atlantic City combined. The United States Native gambling industry is worth close to $100 billion.

These kinds of economic improvements are usually seen as a plus for this historically underserved population.

The Native Tribe gaming industry has contributed to a 26% increase in its communities’ employment, an almost 12% increase in young adults moving back to the reservations, and an 11.5% decrease in the population’s working poor.

My first question was, why did this not happen until the late 1980s?

What was the driver that caused the federal government in America to grant Native Tribes the ability to open, manage, and make profits off their gambling businesses?

My other question and research point was, is this as good as it seems on paper?

Are there economic and social disadvantages the Native Tribes are seeing with the gambling boom within their communities?

Has crime, addiction, or other social issues increased or decreased since the Native Tribes have concentrated their efforts towards the gambling industry?

The best place to start is with the Native Indian Gaming Act of 1988.

Indian Gaming Regulatory Act – Bingo Did It

In the 1970s, several Native Tribes opened lucrative bingo halls that were for profit. This was well within their right as the Native Tribes of the United States were considered sovereign nations under federal law.

The gaming facilities were opened to raise non-federal funds for their communities. If you know anything about American history, you will also know that the Native populations within America have struggled since the mid-1800s.

Everything was flowing along, and more and more tribes got into the gaming business. They were doing well; they were finally making money to put back into their suffering communities.

When the Native Tribe owned bingo halls, the issue came to odds with local and state government regulators within their home jurisdictions. Multiple lower court cases were filed against the Native gaming establishments by various local and states municipalities.

The issue was that these government bodies claimed that the gaming, which was open to the public, violated state and local laws against gambling. The California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians was a landmark case that paved the way for the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA).

Native American Bingo Hall

The State of California argued that its current (state level) law made operating a gambling facility a criminal act under an older law passed in 1953, as seen in six other states. The Cabazon Mission Tribes argued that this didn’t apply to them because they were a sovereign nation.

Without getting too deep into the lawyer-speak or regulatory jargon, snooze, the Supreme Court stood with the Cabazon, citing that they could function as a sovereign nation and, therefore, their own nation’s laws applied to gaming.

This landmark case opened the door of the passage of the IGRA in September of 1988. President Ronald Regan signed the IGRA into law on October 17th, 1988.

This opened the flood gates for Native Tribe gaming across the country. States that had no legal gaming industry saw a boom within the Native Tribes. All Native-owned gaming establishments are located on native lands.

If you lived in Oklahoma, the closest you could get to a legal casino was Las Vegas. Ironically, Oklahoma has strict state laws against non-Tribal gaming and is also home to the largest casino in the world, WinStar World Casino and Resort. The Chickasaw Nation owns WinStar.

The passage of the IGRA didn’t give Native Tribes a free, unregulated gaming industry. They still must adhere to the laws laid out within the IGRA and other federal gaming laws.

Today’s Native Gaming Climate

The current number of Native Lands/ Tribe gaming establishments is around 470 in the United States. They are consistently moving in on the market leaders, the privately-owned casinos.

When the IGRA passed in 1988, the most significant dispute was over successful bingo halls and card houses or clubs. Today’s Native Tribe gaming businesses range from bingo halls to upscale Vegas-like mega-casinos.

The Native Tribes have casinos in 26 states, and the majority are casinos and high stakes businesses within the gambling industry.

Oklahoma is the clear and away leader for most Tribal owned gaming facilities and highest Tribal gaming revenues. Connecticut is in a distant second place with Foxwoods Casino and Resort.

Exterior of the Foxwoods Casino and Resort

The IGRA has given the Tribal owned gaming businesses in America the growth opportunities, and they have taken the advantage. The year over year growth of these businesses has grown in leaps and bounds. Some experts have even called the Tribal opened gambling businesses “recession-proof”.

Native Tribe Gaming Effects on Tribal Communities

One would assume (and hope) that this influx of cash flow to the Tribal communities would improve the poverty, addiction, homelessness, and morbidity rates. While many Tribal owned businesses claim to pump those profits back into their communities, it is hard to measure since they are a part of a sovereign nation.

At the beginning of this post, I mentioned that the reservations had seen improved numbers in poverty, unemployment, and retention of their younger adult populations since the passage of the IGRA. What’s essential for you to know is what kind of problems they were facing before enacting the IGRA.

Native Tribes face some of the highest crime rates, domestic issues, poverty, and death rates than almost any other demographic in the United States. This is due to years of oppression and being shuffled off fertile lands that were home for centuries to desolate the country’s unforgiving areas.

Tribes were placed in an isolated place of such desperation and lack of self-reliance that these issues were all but the only option. The Tribes jumped on the hope that a casino would solve their problems.

When the IGRA became law, many Tribes saw the opportunity to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and successfully support their community needs.

The only problem is that most of the Native Tribes were placed on isolated parcels of land surrounded by almost nothing after the disgraceful Indian Removal Act in the mid-1800s.

This is the point where the issue lies. If you’re in Thackerville, OK, which is an hour or so drive from one of the country’s largest metropolitan populations, you have a high chance of pulling in visitors.

If you’re the Foxwoods Casino, an hour drive from New York City, you’ll be successful getting people in the door. But if you are in the middle of the Arizona or New Mexican desert, with no infrastructure like an airport on your large reservation land parcel, you will not draw the audience that will pull your community out of its depression.

This happened to several failed Tribal owned gaming facilities. If you build it, they might not come.

This raised questions inside the Tribal Nations’ leadership, and outside in federal and state governments. Do the tribes have the business acumen to be running multimillion-dollar gaming businesses? Expressly, with n the Tribal leadership, did it agree with their values and morals?

Many Native Tribes have been successful in their gaming ventures, and some have failed miserably. The industry doesn’t have the long history of the casinos in Vegas and Atlantic City.

It has been just recently that the tribal casinos have started to own more of the market share.

Another indisputable fact is that there has been no other solution to the poverty and crime issues that the Tribal Nations face than that of the IGRA and the growth of the Native-owned gaming industry. There has been no other solution that has driven the kind of financial advantages and been Tribal owned than this industry and the opportunities attached to it.

Only time, careful management, and America’s growing love for gambling will tell if this is a long-term solution to the Native Tribal communities’ issues.

Are the Tribes Business Savvy?

Many groups opposed to Tribal owned gambling businesses keep falling back on the argument that Native Tribes don’t have the education or business experience to be in the gambling business. When I first read this, I was kind of put off and disgusted.

The longer I let that sentence rolls around in my head, the more it made sense. Jack Abramoff defrauded multiple Native Tribe of approximately 25 million dollars.

He talked of promises of lobbying in their favor and using ties with government officials to make legislation favoring the Tribes’ business interests. The kicker is that he went to Capitol Hill and lobbied against Tribal owned gambling businesses.

He will go down in history as a fraud and served 48 months for his crimes. That does disgust me.

Exterior of the Winstar Casino and Resort

This brings up an interesting point though, as a nation, we have kept this population so underserved how are they expected to manage the responsibility that lies with running such a primarily cash-based business? This is tricky water, my friend.

It would make sense that the American government would help give the Native Tribes and their leadership the tools to succeed in their gambling businesses. But where do their sovereign nation rights end and our responsibility begin?

Many Tribes have teamed up with some of the more prominent names in the privately-owned, land based casino industry. This partnership can bring great success if appropriately managed. Again, facing a slippery slope.

I’m not a politician, nor am I a member of a think tank. I am just a writer who enjoys gambling and wants to see the underdog win and stick it to their oppressor. These are more significant issues than my pay grade.


The Native Gaming industry in America is a delicate success. The history of the American government and the Native Tribes is not a good one. Hopefully, both parties can find a way to work together.

My best hope is this is the ticket that Native Tribes (and their leadership) have been looking for to pull their communities out of their desperation. The Native Tribes deserve this win, and I hope that they’re on the right road. This is the least the American government owes them.