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Casinos on Native American Reservations

“Tribal Tots,” an article by Cecily Walters in the October 2013 issue of School Nutrition, explored whether there are special challenges related to operating a K-12 school meals operation on American Indian reservations and referenced the significant poverty prevalent on many of these sites. One strategy that a number of tribal communities have turned to for generating revenue is the operation of gaming casinos. The limited sovereignty of most reservations from certain federal and state laws and regulations prohibiting or limiting gambling makes these sites ideal locations for casinos.

Casinos became an integral part of many American Indian tribal communities beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Nationwide, 237 Indian tribes operate 442 gaming facilities (which include full-fledged casinos, bingo halls, travel plazas and pull tab operations) in 28 states to provide jobs on their reservations and to bring in revenue for tribes to fund education- , health- and social service-related programs. For example;

  • the Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas used gaming revenue to build a 14,000-sq.-ft. Boys and Girls Club Complex;
  • the Seminole, Choctaw, Osage and Iowa Nations use their gaming operations to offer financial assistance and scholarships to tribal students interested in pursuing higher education;
  • the Mille Lacs Band of Objibwe of Minnesota have been able to build two schools with revenues from gaming facilities;
  • the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin built a school to reflect its culture;
  • gaming funded a new K-12 school for the Mescalero Apache; and
  • South Dakota’s Rosebud Sioux Tribe uses gaming revenue to make clothes available for students who need assistance at the beginning of each new school year.

Beyond the many educational opportunities afforded through gaming revenue, tribal communities have used their casinos and other operations to help them build new hospitals (the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma), dialysis and other clinics (the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community in Arizona) and improved water systems (Pueblo of Santa Ana in New Mexico), according to the National Indian Gaming Association’s (NIGA) The Economic Impact of Indian Gaming.

Looking at overall categories, the NIGA report summarizes how Indian tribes spent net government revenue: 20% to education, children and elders, culture, charity and other purposes; 19% to economic development; 17% to health care; 17% to police and fire protection; 16% to infrastructure; and 11% toward housing.

Other research, however, casts a shadow on the long-term impact of gaming on economic conditions for reservations. First, despite the construction of gaming facilities through the 1990s, the number of reservation residents eligible for public assistance programs increased on the majority of reservations. In addition, researchers find that only a small number of casinos produce the bulk of overall casino income; some studies found that the most financially successful gaming operations were those located on smaller, less poverty-stricken reservations with fewer tribal residents and situated near metropolitan areas offering other employment opportunities for members of the tribe. Native Americans living on larger, more rural reservations tend to benefit less from casino income and struggle with higher rates of poverty.

According to National Indian Gaming Commission data, the $27.9 billion generated by the Indian gaming industry in 2012 is the highest total ever—and a 2.7% increase from 2011 Indian gaming revenue. For more on American Indian gaming revenue and how it is used to fund education and other projects, visit www.indiangaming.org/info/NIGA_2009_Economic_Impact_Report.pdf and http://tinyurl.com/indiangamingrevenues.