Native Americans and Gambling

Native Americans and Gambling

You may have noticed that Native Americans have a long history with gambling. Many Native American tribes own casinos and their gambling industry generates more income than Atlantic City and Las Vegas combined!

But how did they build their casino industry? Where did it all start, and how? Well, some reports suggest it all began sometime in the 13th century.

The Hidden Gambling Cave

Back in 2015, archaeologists discovered what appeared to be a casino built into a cave on the shore of Utah’s Great Salt Lake. The archaeologists found carved sticks, hoops, dice and darts near the entrance of the cave around a large central hearth that may have served as a social space.

In a statement, the archaeologists revealed that there were more than 10,000 pieces of gambling equipment in the cave and that the equipment may belong to an obscure tribe known as the Promontory Culture.

As mentioned above, carved sticks were found in the cave. One side of the sticks was decorated with cut or burned lines while the other was left plain. Researchers believe the sticks were used by women as a way to assign tasks while men wagered on the outcomes in what could potentially be some of the first evidence of betting in the Americas.

Reports suggest that the women would have played with the dice for low stakes in order to pass the time while men would have played games with higher stakes. Interestingly enough, some of the artefacts discovered also showed signs that the caves’ inhabitants had made contact with tribes from far off places.

For example, a dice found in the cave was made from a beaver tooth and wrapped in sinew. It actually resembles a similar dice found on the coast of Oregon which belonged to the Klamath people. Meanwhile, other sticks featured patterns that were similar to those found among tribes of the Great Plains and Colorado Plateau.

Ancient Gaming Among the Natives

Meanwhile, research suggests that the Chumash people, a group of Native Americans, enjoyed playing two types of games; ones that involved skill and others that involved chance.

Payas, known today as the hoop and pole game, involved a ring or hoop made from willow twig and wrapped in buckskin. The hoop was rolled along the ground in a straight line while another player waited before aiming and throwing a spear into the centre.

Shinny, also known as tikauwich, was another popular game played by the Chumash and, according to reports, the game required a space of about 300 yards (Around 274 metres). The game featured two teams who each had facing goal posts much like modern-day football or hockey games. Using shinny sticks, the players would then attempt to bat a small wooden ball through the opposing team’s goal post.

It’s thought that the Chumash people may have wagered on the outcome of these games.

The Seminole Tribe of Florida

One of the first modern-day Native American casinos was built during the 1970s. Under the leadership of Howard Tommie, the Seminole Tribe of Florida built a large high-stakes casino bingo building on their reservation near Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

The tribe announced that the building would be open six days a week. This was against Florida’s laws which, back then, only allowed bingo halls to be open two days a week. The tribe had also planned on going over the maximum limit of $100 jackpots.

This led the sheriff of Broward County to make numerous arrests when the tribe’s bingo hall officially opened, but the tribe sued the county in the famous Seminole Tribe v. Butterworth case. During the case, the Seminoles claimed that the tribe had sovereignty rights protected by the federal government from interference by state government.

The court ruled in favour of the Native Americans and they soon began building private casinos, bingo rooms and lotteries on reservation lands. They also set gaming prizes above the maximum legal limit of the state.

Other tribes soon followed the Seminoles, including the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians.

The Cabazon Band of Mission Indians

During the 1960s, the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians were left poor and without much land due to neglected treaties from the 1950s by state senators.

However, the Cabazon Band and neighbouring Morongo Reservation in Indio, California, had some Housing and Urban Development (HUD) buildings as well as several trailers. The tribe then decided to turn to casino operations to make a profit and built bingo and poker halls in 1980.

Similarly to the Seminoles, the Indio police and Riverside County Sheriff shut down their gambling halls, arrested members of the tribe and seized much of their cash and merchandise. The tribe then sued the state in a case known as California v. Cabazon Band.

Like the Seminoles, the Cabazon Band won in the lower courts. In 1986, the Supreme Court reviewed the case and ruled that Native American gaming could only be regulated by Congress and the federal government, not the state government.

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA)

The court case eventually led Congress to pass the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) which allowed tribes to have supreme power over casinos and gambling halls. However, the states and Native Americans were required to reach an agreement together.

The bill, signed by President Ronald Reagan, also meant that the federal government had the right to regulate Native casinos. IGRA was categorised into three different class:

  • Class I Gaming: Defined as “traditional tribal and social gaming” and has no right to be regulated outside of tribal government.
  • Class II Gaming: Defined as gambling in which people play exclusively against other players and not the casino, this includes bingo and poker.
  • Class III Gaming: Defined as all forms of gaming that are neither classes I or II as well as gambling played against a casino, including slots, roulette, blackjack and craps.

Unsatisfied with having to negotiate with tribes after the passage of IGRA, several US states have attempted to challenge the act but have failed. In fact, after the act was signed into law, the Native American gambling industry boomed from $100 million in 1988 to $16.7 billion in 2006.

This was partially due to the huge surge of Native American casinos being built all over the US.

The National Indian Gaming Commission

Immediately after IGRA had passed, the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) was created as a federal agency in 1988 to regulate high-stakes Native American gambling.

The commission consists of three members who each serve a three-year term and must pass a detailed background check by the US Attorney General. The members include a chairman appointed by the US President with consent from the Senate as well as two associate members both appointed by the Secretary of the Interior.

According to reports, the commission has power over class II and III gaming in Native American casinos. They also have power over budget approval, fees, permanent orders and civil fines.

According to 2012 statistics from NIGC, there are over 400 Native Americans casinos in the US, all operated by 240 federally recognised tribes. The casinos all offer Classes I, II and III gaming.

In 2011, it was reported that the casinos generated around $27 billion, up from $12.8 billion in 2001. Today, the Native American gambling industry has been called “recession-resistant” though many tribes claim to have experienced a fall in revenues during the 2007-2009 Great Recession.