A few Indian nations have achieved great wealth as a result of gaming enterprises, creating the impression that casinos can be a magic bullet for fixing the economic and social ills of Native communities. Gaming operations have stimulated much-needed economic growth for some tribes, but the reality is that the majority of tribes do not engage in gaming operations. About 237 out of 564 recognized tribes run 419 gaming facilities. Of those, 71 of the top-earning facilities generate almost 70% of the revenue made by all Indian gaming operations. The vast majority of gaming operations are located in remote rural areas and generate only modest earnings.
Despite the success of a few Indian nations, Indians continue to rank at the bottom of every indicator of social and economic well-being in America. The vast majority of Native communities in the United States suffer from alarming levels of poverty and unemployment; Native tribal governments struggle to adequately address health and safety issues and other very basic needs in their communities. The 2000 Census indicated that overall unemployment rates for Native Americans living on reservations was 22%, much higher than the general population (5.7% at the same time) and akin to the unemployment rate of the general population during the Great Depression (25%). Native Americans continue to rank at the bottom of most health indicators, and violence in some communities is endemic.
The majority of Indian and Alaska Native communities remain very disadvantaged economically, lacking the opportunity for genuine economic development. Contrary to the image so common in the popular media, gaming has made only a few Indians wealthy. It is not possible for gaming to overcome the oppressive legal conditions that affect Native nations, nor can it do much to change the political powerlessness and social ills that characterize so many Native communities.
At the Indian Law Resource Center, we believe a major cause of the economic and social ills within Native communities is the unfair set of legal rules that apply only to Native peoples. Today, federal law concerning Indian and Alaska Native nations and their land is terribly unjust and out of keeping with the Constitution and basic American values.
Arliss Washee, a member of the Apache Tribe of Oklahoma, has personal experience with these laws and the unjust manner in which the Bureau of Indian Affairs administers them. Instead of allowing her to manage her own lands, the Bureau leases it to farmers without her consent and below market cost.
"That’s my land they’re getting money from. The agency doesn’t even want to help us. They rent our lands; they rent our pastures without even asking us. Now the farmers, they come in. They don’t want to negotiate with us. They go to the agency so they can get our land cheap," said Washee.
Ms. Washee’s experience with the Bureau of Indian Affairs is not unique. The Bureau routinely leases Indian lands below market rate, even though it has a legal obligation to act in the best interest of Indian beneficiaries like Ms. Washee. Unethical administration of trust lands by the United States government is a significant problem for Indian individuals and communities; unfortunately it is one of many problems caused by this unjust system of laws.
As the statistics show, gaming is not providing the answer to this problem. Rather, we must focus on reforming the law as it applies to Native peoples in order to develop sustainable economic growth within Native communities.
The Center's Native Land Law project focuses on creating a fair and principled framework of law that protects Native rights and that is consistent with the United States Constitution and Indian treaties. We have drafted 17 General Legal Principles and supporting Commentaries, stating what we believe federal law really is or what it ought to be. Legal experts, Indian law scholars and Indian leaders participated in the creation of these Principles.
We hope continued debate and discussion in the coming months will lead to consensus among Native leaders about the changes they wish to seek in federal law.
Until reform is accomplished, it will continue to be difficult for Native Americans living on reservations to access the financing necessary to build homes or fix their current ones, invest in small businesses within their communities, and control the activities that occur on their lands. The current system hinders job growth, thereby stifling community investment and access to quality healthcare and community services that most Americans take for granted.
We invite you to join us in the effort to reform Native land laws. Help us create awareness about this issue. Please share our Native Land Law Project with your family, friends, community leaders and political advocates. For more information or to make a donation visit www.indianlaw.org. Let's stay connected on this issue and all of the Center's work, become our friend on Facebook: www.facebook.com/indianlawresourcecenter.
Robert T. Coulter
National Indian Gaming Commission, NIGC Tribal Gaming Revenues(2010).
Characteristics of American Indians and Alaska Natives by Tribe and Language: 2000, U.S. Census Bureau, Table 13.
National Congress of American Indians, Unemployment on Indian Reservations at Fifty Percent: The Urgent Need to Create Jobs in Indian Country.
The Office of Minority Health, American Indian/Alaskan Native Profile, available at http://minorityhealth.hhs.gov/templates/browse.aspx?lvl=3&lvlid=26.
Arliss Washee in American Indian Homelands: Matters of truth, honor and dignity - immemorial (Indian Land Tenure Foundation: 2005).