Tribal Gaming Squeezed Between a Rock and a Hard Place

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Casino operations for Native American nations have been the pillar for most of the tribes providing funds to finance other public activities within the communities, but the ongoing development related to the coronavirus second wave of outbreak prompt tribal leaders to rethink their long-term strategy sustainability.

With the country slowly attempting to restore its economy opening back up, the rising number of cases and deaths place a dilemma for the Native American tribes: continue to operate and restore the economic pillar while risking more virus cases and, consequently, lethal cases, or close the gaming establishments again and lose the revenue.

Casinos Can Easily Spread the Virus

The choice is not made easier by two other details, first that statistics show the virus has a disproportionate effect on Native Americans, and second, casinos can easily serve as super-spreaders for the virus. According to some experts, casinos can easily spread the virus due to the indoor environment dominated by touching of shared objects like chips, cards and even slot machines, and that casino staff deals with a lot a people on a daily basis.

Being placed between a rock and a hard place, Native American leaders are pondering on how to diversify tribal economies to reduce the exposure to gambling, increasing their call for a boost in the federal support for the tribes. Indian tribes are waking up to the fact that gaming is not a magic pill for tribal economic development and all eyes are on their leaders to provide new solutions.

Despite tribal casinos generating $35 billion in 2019, according to the National Indian Gaming Commission, in 2018, 19% of gaming establishments accounted for 75% of total Indian gaming revenue. In other words, casinos can serve as focal point for tribal economic planning, but only those that are located in close proximity to urban centres that provide a more regular customer base for them.

Call for More Federal Support

The coronavirus-induced crisis is forcing the recognition that the federal government should be held accountable for its treaty obligations. The Seattle Entertainment Group, a Native American-owned entertainment company, recently distributed a survey which concluded 97% of tribal casino owners were disappointed with the amount of federal support allocated to the tribes, $8 billion, under the CARES Act. Only 3% of casino owners showed confidence they could resume business as usual by the end of 2020.

“Although tribes’ economic development efforts are designed to foster nation-building and self-determination in the advancement of tribal sovereignty, our businesses are meant to complement, not supplant the funds owed to us by our treaties and compacts with the federal government.”

Gary Davis, Executive Director, Native American Financial Services Association

Some tribal leaders among which the chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association, Ernie Stevens, Jr. and former US Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a second federal stimulus package should allocate at least $25 billion to the tribes, as without additional support, Indian nations may never recover.

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