Regulatory Updates

In Politics, the "Perfect Storm" Means Trouble for Tribes

John McCarthy
John McCarthy

by John McCarthy, Executive Director of the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association

Every now and then, American pop culture produces a phrase that resonates with the public long after the movie or commercial or TV show that originated it is forgotten. If you're over forty, you probably remember “Sock it to me!” from Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, “Would you believe…” from Maxwell Smart, and “Where's the beef?” from the Wendy's commercial.

In 2000, a hit movie showed what happened to one fishing boat when a combination of highly unusual weather conditions developed simultaneously, creating “The Perfect Storm.” That phrase has now become part of our American vocabulary, describing any situation where a number of not necessarily disastrous circumstances occur all at once, producing a mega-disaster. From my vantage point, it's starting to look like Indian tribes are facing “the perfect storm.”

First, we have the increasing public backlash against tribes seeking off-reservation gaming opportunities. Despite the fact that only three gaming operations have been established off-reservation under IGRA's Section 20 since 1988, anti-Indian forces have used this issue to fan the flames of racial resentment. This is especially galling when you consider that in many cases, the off-reservation proposals have originated not with tribes, but with communities seeking to improve their economic lot by inviting nearby tribes to establish casinos in their city or county. MIGA has always taken a strong position against off-reservation gambling, but we still believe that tribes, particularly those left landless by brutal federal action decades ago, should have the right to consider that option under the Section 20 two-part process. That's why we oppose amending IGRA so that Section 20 can be changed.

Then there's the federal recognition issue. Some tribes have had requests for recognition pending for more than twenty-five years. In most cases, the requests were initiated long before IGRA was passed. It's not the tribes' fault that the federal government didn't get around to making a decision until now. The Indian-bashers view these federal recognition requests as nothing more than declarations of intent to establish casinos, so there's a clamor of opposition as every recognition case is considered.

Third, we have the Abramoff scandal, in which the tribes that were victimized by this sleazy influence-peddler ended up getting blamed for his transgressions. When it became evident that Republicans had received most of Abramoff's expensive favors, the party faithful realized that they had to divert attention away from their predicament. The answer? Shift the focus to the politically active tribes and their “out-of-control” lobbying expenditures. So far, the politicians have failed to pass a campaign reform bill that singles out Indian tribes for special mistreatment, but as Yogi Berra once said, “It ain't over til it's over.” I'm guessing it's just an oversight.

Fourth, we have the presidential ambitions of Senator John McCain. This is perhaps the most disturbing of our “perfect storm” conditions, because many of us have regarded Senator McCain as a friend in the past. McCain hasn't just turned his back on the tribes, he's done handsprings and cartwheels trying to distance himself from anything remotely pro-Indian. His bill to amend IGRA, S. 2078, is a horrifying example of what can happen when an otherwise principled lawmaker checks his ideals at the door in favor of pragmatic politics as an election year approaches. This bill is so intrusive upon sovereignty, so insulting to Indian people, and so patently unnecessary that it should die a quick and merciful death. Whether it will or not remains to be seen.

However, in the discussion of S. 2078, some disturbing themes are emerging, and we fear those themes will linger like a bad smell even if S. 2078 fails. For example, the push to increase federal regulatory control over tribal gaming is not likely to diminish any time soon. Although tribes spend more than $250 million annually on regulation, as one of our tribal consultants said, “I guess it's not regulation until the white guys say it's regulation.” (That phrase, by the way, came to us from an old Hanes underwear commercial.)

Similarly, the drive to give local communities greater control over Indian affairs is not likely to fade away. Some tribes are already being stymied by county boards as they try to move purchased land into trust, even when it's clear that there's no intent to do gaming on the property. Can you imagine a local school board having veto power over a tribe's right to use its own land as it sees fit? But that's a distinct possibility, given the current political climate.

In 1988, when the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was passed, the politics of the time required that tribes lose a piece of their sovereignty to states as part of the compacting process. Whether McCain's bill passes or fails, it appears that the politics of the present day have created “a perfect storm” of threats to sovereignty that could darken the horizon in Indian country for generations to come.

John McCarthy is Executive Director of the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association. He can be reached by calling (218) 751-0560 or email