Other than those individuals now more widely dispersed among the general population, many Native American tribal groups in the US still live on designated reservation lands. With few exceptions, these areas are rarely sited close to densely populated regions, nor do they generally contain a great deal of prime agricultural terrain. As a result of these factors, Native American communities have relatively few productive economic opportunities.
Citizens with a unique status
Despite these apparent disadvantages, several Native American tribes have managed to established successful casino businesses. In addition, the profits from table games and similar entrepreneurial undertakings have gone some way towards addressing some of the more pressing needs of tribal communities. For instance, unemployment has been reduced on many reservations, while many personal incomes have also increased. Furthermore, there have also been community enhancements in areas such as health and education. Even though many Native American casino operators are, no doubt, astute business executives, another very important reason for the gaming industry success of this particular cultural group has been their ability to exploit their special legal status under US law.
Historically speaking, Native Americans have undoubtedly been treated unfairly at various times – especially as regards land ownership and all the rights which should be associated with such ownership. In modern times such disputes are now conducted in the legal arena, with some issues – such as the ownership of the Sioux tribal lands in the Black Hills of Dakota – still far from resolved after more than 150 years. Nevertheless, one significant legal development which has emerged from such conflicts is a clear understanding that many Native American tribal groups have won the right to be regarded as an individual sovereign nation.
The implications of self-governance
Statistics gathered in 2011 show that, as of that time, there were 460 US gambling operations conducted by 240 tribes. Back then, these businesses, which consisted of casino operating card games and table games, bingo halls, and other gambling operations on Indian reservations or other tribal lands in the United States, were producing a total annual revenue of $27 billion (up from $12.8 billion in 2001). And given that these enterprises took place on lands over which Native Americans held sovereignty, there was relatively little that individual US states could do to prevent gambling activities.
These tribal rights, most recently formalised in the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, mean that any US states which allow any form of gambling within their jurisdiction have no power to suppress Native American gaming enterprises which may happen to lie within the geographical reach of any particular state jurisdiction.
The Native American gaming boom
Prior to 1990, any Native American presence in the casino and gaming sector was relatively small scale. However, during the two decades which followed, their share of the industry has grown beyond all expectations. According to a recent report from Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Las Vegas itself earns only 10% of the revenues generated by the US gambling industry. A more significant contribution of 47% comes from other regional US gaming activities, but the residual 43% of the country’s gaming revenues all accrue from enterprises run by native American tribal groups.
Figures for the end of the 2002 financial year show gross revenues for tribal casinos amounted to approximately $3.8 billion in the eastern US, around $5.9 billion in the central states, with almost $4.8 billion earned in western states. As might be anticipated, those establishments closer to large areas of the population were the ones which profited the most, and it has been estimated that just 12% of Native American gaming enterprises are responsible for around 65% of all tribal casino revenues. Areas such as the Midwest and the Great Plains have so far proved to be the least successful. But even here tribal communities have seen some limited socio-economic benefits.
Though tribal gaming businesses operating casino games and more have met with opposition at various times, their special status has mostly worked to their advantage: In essence, their activities can only be regulated by US federal authorities or by the US Bureau of Indian Affairs. Furthermore, casino gambling (and its related activities) is now the largest source of income for Native American communities, which look well set to continue to reap the benefits of the US gambling boom.