In the past few years, more and more of what appear to be little pieces of the Las Vegas strip seem to be popping up across Oklahoma's tribal regions, with bright neon lights beckoning for miles in the night sky to would-be high rollers.
In a conservative, Bible Belt state that has traditionally eschewed such recreational pursuits as drinking and gambling, it might seem peculiar that there's been such a proliferation of gambling, drinking, rock'n'roll--and someday, maybe showgirls--as accepted entertainment here in Oklahoma.
But, that peculiarity is due mostly to the state's other distinction as the "Land of the Red Man". As the foundation on which the Indian gaming industry is built, Tribal Sovereignty is the reason the word "casino" is scarcely heard in Oklahoma, among numerous other states, without the word "Indian" preceding it.
While it's the largely the conservative, churchgoing sector of the state's population that has opposed the rise of gambling in Oklahoma, under tribal auspices or otherwise, the irony is that it was churches that originally got the ball rolling in the first place.
"There were charities like firehouses and churches that were doing bingo as a way to generate revenue," Shawn Pensoneau, director of media relations for the National Indian Gaming Commission, told UTW as he recounted the origin of tribal casinos.
When the Seminole Indian tribe in Florida in the 1970s looked to such small-scale bingo operations going on inside church activity centers and started to emulate the practice to help fill their own coffers, the idea caught on like wild fire.
Except, the tribe's bingo games were played for much higher stakes, drawing locals and tourists onto reservation lands to play for prizes they'd otherwise have to go to Las Vegas or Atlantic City to find.
The idea was wildly successful, generating $100 million for the tribe in its first year.
The Seminole Tribe has since used its resultant wealth to expand into other businesses such as the $965 million purchase of the Hard Rock Café franchise in late 2006 which included 124 of the eponymous restaurants worldwide, two Hard Rock Hotels, two concert venues named for the brand, and most of the rock memorabilia housed and displayed in those facilities.)
In those early days of the rising Seminole economic empire, other tribes across the nation inevitably took notice and followed suit with their own gaming operations.
As tribal gaming operations were popping up in more and more states, though, their innovation soon brought them into conflict with state governments, and a series of court battles ensued over whether tribal governments had the authority to conduct gaming operations outside the regulatory power of states.
Pensoneau explained that many of those state governments were also exploring the possibility of increasing state revenues through state-sponsored gaming, but they couldn't compete with the higher-stakes, more action-packed tribal games that ignored or rebuffed the states' attempts to rein them in.
Those lower court decisions vindicated the tribes' position, but the matter wasn't resolved with any finality until 1987 when the case of California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians reached the U.S. Supreme Court, and the court ruled in favor of the tribe.
The decision affirmed the numerous earlier lower court decisions by recognizing that, as sovereign political entities, federally recognized Native American tribal entities could operate gaming facilities free of state regulation.
What was established in precedent was set in legislation a year later when Congress enacted the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.
"Embodied in the IGRA was a compromise between state and tribal interests," said Pensoneau.
The act established the jurisdictional framework governing Indian gaming, dividing gaming operations into three separate classes with a different regulatory scheme for each.
Class I are social games "for prizes of minimal value," which characterize those games going on inside churches and community centers on a Friday night, rather than the higher-stakes tribal operations under discussion.
Those would be Class II games, which include games of chance, such as bingo, pull tabs, punch boards and lotteries, but exclude card games, table games and slot machines.
Under the rules established under the IGRA, tribes can hold Class I and II games in any state that allows them, but free of state regulation.
"The courts have decided that, as far as gaming goes, anything that's legal in a state, tribes can do, but they don't have to follow the states' limits. They can set their own limits and rules," explained Phillip Ostrander, a lobbyist for the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association.
Class III games are any not included in the first two classes, and generally include casino-style gaming, like slot machines, card and table games.
According to the rules established in the IGRA, tribes are much more restricted in their Class III gaming operations than in the lower categories.
Like the first two classes, they are only authorized to conduct them if the state in which the tribe is located allows those types of games, but the tribe must negotiate a compact with the state to engage in Class III gaming.
Cherry Blossom Time
Today, it's Class III gaming that drives the industry, but that's somewhat of a recent development, and doesn't account for the increase in Oklahoma prior to 2004, as Ostrander explained.
"What's caused the explosion of Indian gaming over the past two decades is the advent of electronic devices that simulate slot machines," he said.
While actual slot machines would fall under Class III gaming, many of the electronic "slot machines" set up since the IGRA was enacted are only packaged and presented as such, but are technically only bingo games of the Class II variety, Ostrander explained.
(That "technicality" might soon change, but more on that later.)
According to the 2007 North American Gaming Almanac, Oklahoma is third in the nation for the number of slot machines in the state at 45,289, surpassed only by California with its 64,510 machines and Nevada with its 206,419.
It's only been since 2004 that full-blown casinos took off in Oklahoma, which is when voters approved State Question 712, the State-Tribal Gaming Act.
The act authorized a certain number of gaming terminals at each of the three racetracks--Will Rogers, Remington Park and Blue Ribbon Downs, and established a model compact between the state of Oklahoma and the tribes.
According to the compact, in exchange for a small percentage of the revenues, the state of Oklahoma gives tribes exclusive rights to operate certain Class III games.
The act passed with slightly less than 60 percent voter approval, and was one of three controversial measures to pass during the state's budget crisis of 2004, on the promise of generating revenue for the state.
The others established the Oklahoma Education Lottery and increased the tobacco tax.
Today, 33 tribes have compacted with the state of Oklahoma for 97 tribal gaming operations throughout the state, far surpassing the 27 other states with Indian gaming. The closest second to Oklahoma is California, with its 61 operations.
However, most of those aren't full-blown casinos, but stand-alone electronic games.
"Oklahoma has the most gaming operations, but some are in truck stops, gas stations and convenience stores," said Pensoneau.
David Qualls, chairman of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association, told UTW that there are approximately 40 full-blown casinos in the land--but qualified that there isn't a strict dividing line between the Class III, Vegas-style facilities that include Class II games, as well, like the Osage Million Dollar Elm Casino, and those with mostly Class II games and a few Class IIIs.
"I wouldn't be able to tell you how many are travel plazas with licensed gaming and how many are the big casinos," he said.
He said there only about 10 or fewer tribal-operated facilities with only Class II games.
Also, while Vegas-style casinos have proliferated in Oklahoma, that hasn't necessarily included some of the non-gambling-related staples of Las Vegas casinos.
For instance, if Oklahomans want to be entertained by showgirls in-between gambling binges, they'll still have to take a trip to Nevada.
Qualls said there's nothing in the compacts to prevent the inclusion of showgirls or other entertainment attractions in tribes' casino offerings, so it's up to each tribe's respective marketing strategy to determine what fits.
When asked why Cherokee casinos don't have such attractions as showgirls, the tribe's communication officer Mike Miller answered, tongue-in-cheek, "Do you want to file a formal complaint?"
He said he'd check with the marketing department to see if showgirls might be included in the future.
Apparently, they're still chewing on the idea since, at the time of this writing, Miller hadn't gotten back with us.
Employment, Healthcare, Infrastructure
Showgirls or not, tribes are still raking in revenue.
The take-in from the state's gambling industry has tripled since the passage of State Question 712 in 2004, averaging at $617.87 per capita by the end of 2006, also according to last year's North American Gaming Almanac.
The total gambling revenue in Oklahoma for that year was $2.2 billion.
As the tribes and their representatives tell it, the State-Tribal Gaming Act has worked out pretty well.
"We're very fortunate to have tribal gaming in Oklahoma," said the OIGA advocate.
"It's bringing about self-reliance for the tribes; it's bringing employment, so they're less dependent on federal dollars," Ostrander explained.
He said the casinos' workforces are typically made up of about 60 percent tribal members and 40 percent non-tribal.
Ostrander pointed to Ottawa County, located on the northeastern corner of Oklahoma, as just one success story to result from the advent of tribal gaming.
"When the BF Goodrich plant closed down in the '80s, unemployment there was approaching 20 percent, but since then, we've created a virtual zero-unemployment rate," he said.
"There are more jobs available than the workforce can provide," Ostrander continued. "Because of gaming revenue, we've created lots of spin-off employment in rural Oklahoma and dramatically raised the standard of living."
Kym Koch Thompson, spokesperson for the Chickasaw Nation, said her tribe's Riverwind Casino near Norman, which is the largest casino in the state, employs 1,200 people for jobs with "full medical benefits and opportunities for advancement."
While there's big money rolling in from those casinos, Ostrander said that money is "revenue, not profits," which tribal governments use for roads and bridges, health care costs, social services, career development assistance, higher education costs and other services to tribal members.
Thompson said the Chickasaw Nation recently put some of its gaming revenues toward construction of the newly-built Tishimongo Wellness Center, the Marshall County Community Center and a Community Center in Ada.
"These facilities are designed to benefit the entire community," she said.
Also, she said, the Chickasaw Nation built a $1.7 million sewage treatment plant for Goldsby and a $2.1 million water tower for Newcastle.
"It makes sense for us to be partners and good neighbors with those communities where we have built our facilities," said Brian Campbell, administrator for the Division of Commerce of the Chickasaw Nation.
"We know they appreciate the job opportunities we bring (and) the amenities we provide for expanding tourist traffic in their areas. But in a few instances, we've gone further than that and provided critical infrastructure which has made all the difference to the area's ability to grow," he added.
Jennifer Standingbear, marketing manager for the Osage Million Dollar Elm Casinos, said her tribe has seven different Class III gaming operations throughout the state, including Tulsa.
In smaller towns like Pawhuska, Skiatook and Hominy, she said they're "basically the only form of entertainment in those towns."
Cost of Doing Business
But, there are some who can't get past the fact that all those benefits come from the proliferation of gambling in the state, which exacts its own price.
"I've got national data to base this on, but common sense would tell you that the more opportunities there are to gamble, the more gambling problems there will be," said Michael Smith, executive director of the Oklahoma Association for Problem and Compulsive Gambling.
Citing statistics from the National Association for Problem and Compulsive Gambling, Smith said between 1-2 percent of a population will develop a gambling addiction where gambling is legally accessible.
Now that Vegas-style casino gambling is readily available in the Sooner State, he said that statistic translates to 35,000-70,000 Oklahomans with the potential for a compulsive gambling problem.
"If we had 35,000 people in the state with a disease, what would we call that?" Smith said.
And this particular "epidemic," he said, is more harmful than all other addictions he's seen.
"I've never seen any issue as destructive to families as a gambling addiction," he said.
And as a veteran therapist and a member of the state Board of Mental Health for several years, Smith has seen families affected by alcoholism and all varieties of drug addiction.
"When someone takes a dive and loses everything they had, their spouse--who never stepped foot inside the casino--has 50 percent of that debt," Smith explained.
"What do you think that does to a marriage? To a family?" he said.
Smith said problem of compulsive gambling "is a real quiet addiction, but it happens quickly."
"There is so much shame attached to what (compulsive or problem gamblers) have done. People will 'fess up to almost anything else before that," he said.
Because it's such a "quiet" addiction, Smith said the state of Oklahoma had no infrastructure in place to treat it before the State-Tribal Gaming Act. "The state had not done anything to address the issue."
He got involved about three years ago after treating a 13-year-old boy who'd run up $31,000 in debt on his parents' credit cards through online gambling.
"There are middle school-aged gamblers, high school gamblers, college-aged, middle-aged . . . It doesn't recognize age limits," Smith said.
That particular scenario didn't have anything to do with Oklahoma's rising tribal gaming industry, but Smith said, "The more I got into it, the more I peeled the onion back and saw how many layers there were to this."
As he learned more, it eventually came to his attention that there is no screening process for gambling addiction at most mental health treatment facilities in the state.
Also, while the gaming compacts requires that $250,000 be allocated to the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services for treatment and prevention of gambling addiction, there was little if any expertise in place to put those funds to use.
So, in March 2005, Smith formed the OAPCG, which trains counselors to treat gambling addiction and operates the toll-free gambling addiction helpline.
He said his organization has trained 169 counselors to treat gambling addiction since the group's inception.
But, because of the aforementioned shame attached to the addiction, Smith said hard data is elusive when it comes to determining just how many people have gambling problems.
"There are not a lot of people who will call the helpline," he said.
It's generally only when a person hits rock-bottom that they'll reach out for help, Smith said.
"I've talked to people who lost over $1 million. This one guy called me--he wouldn't say who he was, he just said, 'I'm on TV and I have two large companies.' He asked, 'I just lost everything. How do I get my wife to stay with me?'" he related.
"Sometimes people take their own life," he added.
Ostrander said the problem of gambling addiction isn't anything unique to Oklahoma's gaming industry, though.
"There's always a percentage of the population with an addictive personality. That's just a fact of life," said the Indian gaming advocate.
"But, the tribes don't want that. Frankly, they don't want somebody's mortgage payment. They want your entertainment dollars," Ostrander added.
He noted that signs are posted in casinos, which is required by the compacts, telling problem gamblers how to go about getting help.
One such avenue is the helpline started by the Oklahoma Association of Problem and Compulsive Gambling, which is 1-800-522-4700.
Also, Standingbear said gambling treatment services are available through the Osage Nation and other tribes.
Meanwhile, Smith said awareness of the problem is increasing every year, and with it, the means to treat it.
"I think the infrastructure is growing every day," he said.
Gaming operations are also expanding.
Qualls said numerous tribes are adding to existing gaming operations, and the Quapaw Tribe is currently building a new casino north of Miami.
Standingbear said the Cherokee Nation is also adding to existing facilities in Tulsa, Ponca City and Skiatook.
Miller said his tribe has a $100 million expansion project underway for their casino in Catoosa, which includes construction of a large hotel.
Thompson Gouge, spokesman for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, said their casino in Bristow is in the renovation process, and a brand new facility opened in Holdenville in February.
He said the Duck Creek casino also added "a lot of square footage" last September.
The Creek Nation, incidentally, was the first in Tulsa to open a bingo hall at 81st and Riverside in the late 1980s, shortly after passage of the IGRA.
As the tribal gaming industry is booming, though, rule changes proposed last year by the National Indian Gaming Commission threaten to dampen that prosperity, even according to the industry's own own numbers.
The suggested new regulations would eliminate the aforementioned ambiguity between Class II bingo games and Class III games.
"Because of the current lack of clarity between 'technological aids' and 'electronic facsimiles,' the Commission is concerned that much of the equipment now used to electronically connect bingo players may actually qualify as Class III gaming and be unlawful," reads a written statement by the agency.
The new rules would place the games in question under the "Class III"-category, and thereby under the purview of state compacts.
Naturally, the tribes aren't very happy about the proposals because, according to the NIGC's own numbers, it would cut significantly into tribal revenues by requiring them to close down those operations or replace them with other "less lucrative" (as described by the NIGC) Class II games, or move them to Class III facilities, giving a cut of the revenue to the state.
"There will be some considerable short-run cost associated with these regulatory steps. However, in the long run, stability will be brought to this important area and the industry will be better served by our clearly informing tribes what they can legally invest in and operate, what banks will be willing to finance, and what the designers and manufacturers of these games can provide," said NIGC Chairman Phil Hogen.
He added, "Even though the Indian gaming industry generates over $26 billion annually, these are significant impacts and, of course, not all gaming tribes will be impacted evenly."
The gaming tribes in Oklahoma, of course, would be particularly adversely affected due to the aforementioned proliferation of Class II bingo games in the state, which would no longer qualify as "Class II."
"It would cost more than a billion dollars in Oklahoma alone, and those are the NIGC's numbers," said the Cherokee Nation spokesman.
Miller said it's hard to estimate how much this could cost his tribe specifically, but he noted the estimated billion dollar hit to the state economy would translate to lost wages for employees, lost jobs and less revenue for tribes for government services.
Representatives from his tribe and others, as well as representatives of the NIGC met with Oklahoma's Reps. Tom Cole and Dan Boren at a hearing in Miami, Okla. in February.
Cole, who is a member of the Chickasaw Nation, warned that the proposed regulatory changes would "cripple economic development in Indian country" rather than promote it, and called them "a solution in search of a problem."
After hearing the considerable negative feedback about the proposed rules, Hogen said he planned on making a decision on whether to approve them by the third week of March. However, at the time of this writing, the agency had not issued a statement about the fate of the rules, or of Class II gaming.
"The federal government doesn't always operate with speed," said Miller.
If the Commission does change the rules, though, many
tribes have indicated plans to pursue litigation.
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