Native Sun: Indian gaming and tribal sovereignty
The following editorial by Tim Giago and cartoon appeared in The Native Sun News.

There have been gala celebrations in and around Deadwood to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the birth of legalized gambling. The common exuberance centers on the prosperity and growth of the city that can be directly attributed to gambling.

When the State of South Dakota placed legalized gambling on the ballot 20 years ago, I was the editor of the original and only Lakota Times. Many of us on the Pine Ridge Reservation knew that any type of gambling made legal in the state would also become legal on the Indian reservations. Indian gaming was just becoming law under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and casinos were opening on some Indian reservations.

State governments were trying their best to stop or block Indian gaming for all of the wrong reasons; reasons that proved to come from pure hysteria and this became evident after several years. The main complaint of the state governments was that if the tribes were sovereign nations, the states would have no jurisdiction to control gaming and this would open the door for major crime syndicates to take control of Indian gaming. Of course this never happened, but it was a gambit that eventually paid off for the states because the IGRA, pushed by the Senators and Representatives from state governments, eventually ruled that Indian tribes could not open a gaming casino without first signing a gaming compact with the state government where the tribes were located.

The federal government effectively took away much of the sovereign status of the Indian nations when the IGRA was passed. By forcing tribes to sign compacts with the state, the tribes became beholden and oftentimes hostage to the whims of the state governments. Some states such as Utah, a strong Mormon state, blocked Indian gaming altogether and other states put such strong restrictions on the tribes as to severely limit their ability to act independently of state control. But even worse, some states saw this as a powerful opportunity to raise huge sums of money by taxing the gaming revenues of tribes. This was started by the Mashantucket Pequot and their Foxwood Casino in Ledyard, Connecticut.

In order for this small tribe to get legalized gambling on their tiny reservation, a reservation where only one Indian woman lived until the idea of a casino was born, they went to bed with the devil; the state. They signed a gaming compact that allowed the state to take a portion of their revenues from slot machines as a condition of securing a compact that would allow them to open a casino. Other states saw this as an opportunity and the ball to collect revenue from Indian gaming began to roll.

When I heard that South Dakota was about to legalize gambling for Deadwood I sat back and waited until just before the election. A week before the election I did an editorial urging every Native American of voting age to vote “Yes” on legalized gambling knowing full well that whatever form of gaming that became legal in South Dakota, would also be legal in Indian Country. The Native American vote was huge in favor of the proposition that legalized gambling that vote may have carried the proposition to victory. When South Dakota’s attorney general read my editorial one week before the election he purportedly screeched, “Oh, my God, what have I done. I’ve opened the door for Indians to have casinos.”

While Deadwood has enjoyed unlimited growth because the state government has bent over backwards to accommodate them in the number of slot machines they can operate, the state has placed severe restrictions on the Indian casinos by forbidding them from having more than 250 slot machines. As I have written over the years, when the tribes of the Sioux Nation signed gaming compacts with the state, they also signed away a portion of their sovereignty. Was it out of greed or ignorance

It is my belief that the State of South Dakota is hoping that the tribes in South Dakota will be eager to sign new compacts and thereby gain many more gaming devices if they are willing to give a percentage of their profits to the state government. Right now, the state does not collect any revenues from South Dakota tribes. My question to the tribal leaders: Why is it that you allow another sovereign government to tell you how many slot machines or other gaming devices you can have in the casino you own, a private business no less, and a business situated on sovereign lands?

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the publisher of Native Sun News. He was the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association, the 1985 recipient of the H. L. Mencken Award, and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991. Giago was inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2008. He can be reached at His latest book, “Children Left Behind” is available through or at

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