All the tribes in the Great Lakes area have casinos. Those in Minnesota are the third most profitable Indian casinos, behind Connecticut and California. But profits of these gaming operations vary from the tens of millions to about half a million dollars. Still, they have had a tremendous impact on the lives of Native people. How do Indian casinos differ from those in Las Vegas and Atlantic City?

In the 1980s, Indian communities began to feel the negative effects of budget cuts for Indian programs. This, and a legacy of economic marginalization and the failure of federally-instigated projects, created a climate in which news of the Seminole Tribe’s bingo operation led to the tribes’ embrace of gaming enterprises. In 1979 Florida tried to stop the Seminole from operating high stakes bingo, but the Supreme Court ruled that tribes, as sovereign governments, were not subject to state regulation. In 1987, the court ruled that California could not regulate gaming in tribal casinos, if the state allowed the same kind of games generally. Gaming caught on because the start-up costs were low, there was minimal impact on the environment, and there was potentially a good return on investment. In the late 1980s, Indian casinos began opening throughout the Great Lakes region.


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Congress reacted by passing the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988. This legislation required tribes and states to negotiate a “compact” (agreement) about regulating “Class III” games (slot machines, blackjack, craps, Keno, roulette) and mandated that a tribe be the sole owner and primary beneficiary of a casino operation. The allocation of revenue was limited to expenditures on government, economic development, and general welfare. Per capita payments to tribal members were subject to the approval of the secretary of the interior, and payments to states were limited to reimbursement for their regulatory costs. Indian gaming is the most heavily regulated form of gambling in the United States. The National Indian Gaming Commission oversees management contracts and other aspects of these enterprises. Tribes develop ordinances, and states have a regulatory role. The federal government has authority in matters of crime and oversees audits.


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The Seminole Tribe sued Florida, arguing that the state refused to negotiate a compact “in good faith” as the IGRA required. In 1996, the Supreme Court ruled that tribes cannot sue states. This put tribes in the difficult position of having to capitulate to state demands, reasonable or not, if they wanted to operate gaming enterprises. States began to insist on receiving part of tribes’ casino revenue.

The success of casinos has transformed the social and economic life of Indian communities. Tribes use profits to operate programs to enhance educational opportunities, health care, museums and cultural centers, language programs, and projects that protect natural resources, and to operate them with Native staff in culturally appropriate ways. Tribal leaders have developed managerial skills and increased their political influence in off-reservation politics. Unemployment has dropped dramatically (although up to 75 percent of the employees are not tribal members), casinos provide their employees better-than-average health care and retirement benefits, roads and sanitation have improved, public safety has been enhanced by the funding of police and fire departments and emergency medical service, housing has been improved and expanded, and tribes have been able to buy land. In addition, casino revenue has been used to provide capital for other tribal businesses and for loans to individuals to start their own businesses. Tribes also used millions of dollars from casino revenue for donations to local and national charities and public programs and for assistance to other tribes.

Despite the gains, tribes have a long way to go to achieve the same quality of life that state residents take for granted. Nonetheless, tribal casinos are subject to ridicule by the media and demands from states for more money, and sometimes opposition from non-Indians to Indian ownership of casinos altogether.

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