The Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians own and operate the Three Rivers Casino Resort in Florence, Oregon. Photo: Rick Obst

Tribes see another year of growth as gaming revenues hit $32.4 billion

Thirty years after the passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, tribes continue to see growth in the industry they created.

Tribes took in $32.4 billion at their casinos in 2017, the National Indian Gaming Commission announced on Tuesday. The figure represents an increase of 3.9 percent from the year prior.

"The economic health of Indian gaming remains strong," Jonodev Osceola Chaudhuri, the chairman of the federal agency, said at a press conference in Washington, D.C.

According to the agency's annual figures, the Indian gaming industry has seen steady growth in the last decade. After a brief dip following the national economic recession in 2008, year to year gains began to ramp up in 2014.

Last year, for example, tribes took in $31.2 billion at their facilities, an increase of 4.4 percent from the year prior. And in 2015, revenues totaled $29.9 billion, which represented 5 percent increase, the largest growth rate in 10 years.

National Indian Gaming Commission on YouTube: 2017 Indian Gaming Revenues Increase 3.9% to $32.4 Billion

According to Chaudhuri, the figures show how tribes are putting the principles behind IGRA to work in their communities. The key is self-determination, he said.

"Here at the NIGC, we support each tribes' inherent sovereign authority to serve as the primary regulator of its gaming," said Chaudhuri, who is a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

The largest growth rate, of 7.3 percent, was seen in the region that includes all of California and northern Nevada. According to the NIGC, tribes there took in $9 billion in 2017, up from $8.4 billion the year prior.

The second largest growth rate, of 6.5 percent, was seen in the Pacific Northwest, the NIGC's figures show. Tribes in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington saw revenues of $3.4 billion in 2017, an increase from $3.2 billion the year prior.

The region that includes eastern Oklahoma and all of Kansas also showed a healthy growth rate of 4.2 percent. Tribes there took in $2.4 billion in 2017, up from $2.3 billion the year prior, the NIGC reported.

The 2017 growth rates in all three of these regions surpassed those seen in the year prior, according to the figures.

Gross gaming revenues in 2017 by region. Source: National Indian Gaming Commission

The figures for the rest of Indian Country, on the other hand, were less impressive. For example, revenues in the Oklahoma City region, which includes tribes in the western part of the state as well as those in Texas, grew 2.1 percent to $2.3 billion.

The year prior, however, they had grown a whopping 5.7 percent, according to the NIGC.

Then there was the Rapid City region, which covers tribes in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming. Revenues fell 2.7 percent to $363 million in 2017, the figures showed

Still, tribes in the region were able to stem losses seen the year prior, when revenues dropped by nearly 9 percent, according to the results.

But officials pointed out that the Rapid City region is new, having been officially created earlier this year. So the NIGC "retroactively calculated" the numbers for that region, which includes a large number of facilities in small and rural communities, Chaudhuri said.

The figures, Chaudhuri said, will help the NIGC determine how best to "support the smallest of the small operations" in Indian Country. The Rapid City region is home to 39 casinos in the four states, according to the agency.

The announcement of the 2017 gross gaming revenues came as the NIGC itself is in transition. Last month, Indian Country Today published an "exit interview" with Chaudhuri, which said he had "finished his commitment" at the federal agency.

According to IGRA, the chairman of the NIGC serves a three-year term. Chaudhuri took his oath of office on May 14, 2015, and while he has not announced when he is leaving, he indicated it could be sometime this summer.

"I have been and remain committed to a smooth transition and, in the near future, will announce a departure date. In the meantime, though, I anticipate working with our incredible team through at least a good part of the summer to close out as many matters as possible," Chaudhuri said in a May 9 statement.

Chaudhuri's exit opens the door for President Donald Trump, who has antagonized tribes with race-based attacks and once questioned the legality of Indian gaming, to reshape the agency. Under IGRA, the chairman of the NIGC must be nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate.

The process typically takes months to complete and it has not been Trump's strong point. In February, he abandoned his choice for the Indian Health Service after questions were raised about the nominee's background.

Trump's pick to lead the Bureau of Indian Affairs finally secured confirmation hearing in the Senate in May after months of delays linked to her background. But Tara Sweeney, who is Inupiat from Alaska, is taking a major step earlier with a committee vote in support of her nomination on June 6.

And just last week, the Senate approved the nomination of Jean Carol Hovland, a citizen of the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe, to serve as the Commissioner of the Administration for Native Americans. The action fills a post at the Department of Health and Human Services that has been vacant for nearly two years.

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