U.S. Law Supports Indian Gaming

The U.S. Congress undertook to regulate gaming on Indian lands by dividing the forms of gaming into three classes and authorizing compacts between tribes and states.

Summary of Event

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), signed into law on October 17, 1988, by President George H. W. Bush, represents an amalgamation of ideas presented in various bills introduced in Congress from 1983 through 1987 and provides a system to permit and regulate gaming on American Indian lands. Gambling;Native American lands
Casinos;Native American
Native Americans;gambling casinos
[kw]U.S. Law Supports Indian Gaming (Oct. 17, 1988)
[kw]Law Supports Indian Gaming, U.S. (Oct. 17, 1988)
[kw]Indian Gaming, U.S. Law Supports (Oct. 17, 1988)
[kw]Gaming, U.S. Law Supports Indian (Oct. 17, 1988)
Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (1988)
Gambling;Native American lands
Casinos;Native American
Native Americans;gambling casinos
[g]North America;Oct. 17, 1988: U.S. Law Supports Indian Gaming[06970]
[g]United States;Oct. 17, 1988: U.S. Law Supports Indian Gaming[06970]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Oct. 17, 1988: U.S. Law Supports Indian Gaming[06970]
[c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;Oct. 17, 1988: U.S. Law Supports Indian Gaming[06970]
DeConcini, Dennis
Inouye, Daniel
Swimmer, Ross
Udall, Morris K.

The IGRA divides gaming into three classes. Class I gaming includes social games of minimal value, as well as traditional games played as a part of tribal ceremonies or celebrations. Class I gaming is exclusively regulated by the tribes. Class II gaming includes bingo, and if played within the same location, pull tabs, lotto, tip jars, instant bingo, games similar to bingo, and certain card games. A tribe may engage in Class II games if the state in which the tribe is located permits such gaming for any purpose by any person, organization, or entity. Class III gaming includes all forms of gaming other than Class I or II, for example, banking card games like blackjack, baccarat and chemin de fer, slot machines, craps, parimutuel horse racing, and dog racing. Class III gaming is prohibited unless authorized by a tribal-state compact.

In addition to classifying games, the IGRA established a three-member National Indian Gaming Commission National Indian Gaming Commission within the Department of the Interior. The commission chairman is appointed by the president of the United States with Senate approval; the other two members are appointed by the secretary of the interior. At least two members must be enrolled members of an American Indian tribe. The commission has the power to approve all tribal gaming ordinances and resolutions, shut down gaming activities, levy and collect fines, and approve gaming management contracts for Class II and III gaming. The commission has broad power to monitor Class II gaming by inspecting gaming permits, conducting background investigations of personnel, and inspecting and auditing books and records. Regulation and jurisdiction of Class III gaming is more complicated. Class III gaming is lawful when it is authorized by a tribal ordinance, approved by the chairman of the commission, located in a state that permits such gaming (whether for charitable, commercial, or government purposes), and conducted in compliance with a tribal-state compact that is approved by the secretary of the interior.

A tribe seeking to conduct Class III gaming must request that the state in which its lands are located negotiate a tribal-state compact governing the conduct of gaming activities. The compact may include provisions concerning the application of tribal or state criminal and civil laws directly related to gaming, the allocation of jurisdiction between the state and tribe, state assessments to defray the costs of regulation, standards for operation and maintenance of the gaming facility, and other subjects related to the gaming activity. The state is not authorized to impose a tax or assessment upon a tribe unless the tribe agrees. The state cannot refuse to negotiate a compact based on its inability to impose a tax, fee, or other assessment.

The question of gaming on American Indian reservations is one that involves both sovereignty and economic issues for tribes and states alike. The IGRA grants U.S. district courts jurisdiction over actions by tribes. Reasons for such action include failure of a state to negotiate with a tribe seeking to enter a compact; failure of the state to negotiate in good faith; or any violation of the tribal-state compact. The IGRA provides that a federal district court may order a tribe and state to reach a compact if the state fails to meet its burden of proving that it negotiated in good faith. If no compact is forthcoming, a court may appoint a mediator to recommend a compact. In March, 1996, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Seminole Tribe of Indians v. Florida
Seminole Tribe of Indians v. Florida (1996) that Congress cannot force states into federal court to settle disputes over gambling on reservations. Federal law, through the IGRA, still permits tribes to seek help from the secretary of the interior when state officials balk at tribal plans for gaming operations.

The IGRA requires that all gaming facilities be tribally owned and that revenue from gaming operations be directed for specific tribal programs, such as education, elderly programs, or housing. Restriction of gaming to tribal governments ensures that American Indian gaming remains a government function rather than a personal endeavor.

The most controversial aspect of the IGRA involves the tribal-state compacting required for Class III gaming. Tribal sovereignty is diminished by the IGRA, because it forces states and tribes into an agreement. Most laws recognize that tribes have a government-to-government relationship with the federal government and are not under state jurisdiction unless there is prior agreement (as in Public Law 280 states). The IGRA specifically requires negotiations between tribes and states, a relationship they do not normally have.


States objected to the tribal-state compacting on the grounds that it violated their sovereignty under the Eleventh Amendment of the Constitution, Eleventh Amendment (U.S. Constitution) which protects states from being sued in federal court against their will. In a 1996 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress cannot attempt to resolve stalled negotiations between states and tribes over on-reservation gambling by making states and their officials targets of federal lawsuits. The Eleventh Amendment rights of states were upheld. Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (1988)

The IGRA has been embraced by many tribes in the United States as a way to bolster reservation economies. Some of the most poverty-stricken areas in the United States are American Indian reservations, and gaming revenues give tribes income to reinvest in other business ventures. The need to generate widespread support for ballot initiatives such as California’s Proposition 5 (1998), Proposition 5 (California, 1998)[Proposition 05 (California, 1998)] known as the California Indian Self-Reliance Initiative, California Indian Self-Reliance Initiative (1998) helped Native American tribes develop more powerful political lobbies, with influence beyond issues of gambling. However, the compacting process can result in conflict of interest for some states that rely heavily on gaming revenues. In addition, the issue of untaxed revenues resulting from American Indian gaming operations is a factor in establishing compacts, and states in need of such revenue cannot act dispassionately with tribes when they negotiate those compacts. Gaming on American Indian reservations is fraught with issues of competing interests for both tribes and states. Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (1988)
Gambling;Native American lands
Casinos;Native American
Native Americans;gambling casinos

Further Reading

  • Canby, William C. American Indian Law in a Nutshell. 4th ed. St. Paul, Minn.: West, 2004. Provides simple explanations of the complex legal issues that are involved in dealings among the U.S. government, state governments, and tribal nations.
  • Light, Steven Andrew, and Kathryn R. L. Rand. Indian Gaming and Tribal Sovereignty: The Casino Compromise. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2005. Provides comprehensive coverage of the laws concerning Native American gambling businesses, including the IGRA. Also discusses the politics surrounding the Indian gaming industry.
  • Pommersheim, Frank. “Economic Development in Indian Country: What Are the Questions?” American Indian Law Review 12 (1987): 195-217. Explains the need for revenue in American Indian country and the possibilities for economic improvement that gaming provides tribes.
  • Santoni, Roland J. “The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act: How Did We Get Here? Where Are We Going?” Creighton Law Review 26 (1993): 387-447. Provides a comprehensive chronology of the legislation, pertinent legal cases, suggested amendments, and a table of tribal-state compacts.
  • Turner, Allen C. “Evolution, Assimilation, and State Control of Gambling in Indian Country: Is Cabazon v. California an Assimilationist Wolf in Preemptive Clothing?” Idaho Law Review 24, no. 2 (1987-1988): 317-338. Explores the seminal case that influenced the involvement of states in the compacting process.
  • Wilkinson, Charles F. American Indians, Time, and the Law: Native Societies in a Modern Constitutional Democracy. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987. Discusses tribal sovereignty as a preconstitutional right and how this inherent right can be diminished.
  • Wunder, John R. “Retained by the People”: A History of American Indians and the Bill of Rights. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. A chronicle and comprehensive history of the relationship between American Indians and the U.S. government. Gives detailed analysis of the tribal-federal relationship.

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