While political opposition still sometimes flares up, with some form of legal gaming available in all but two states, there now is little question that gaming is widely accepted in the United States.  In 2014, commercial casino gaming revenues were slightly less than $38 billion, and tribal gaming represented an additional $28.5 billion. These are significant economic contributors, and tribal gaming is especially important in helping improve conditions in many communities.

Tribal gaming is a unique economic engine. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), which was enacted in 1988 to provide a statutory basis for the regulation of gaming on Indian lands, prohibits using net revenues from Indian gaming for any purpose other than funding tribal government operations or programs; providing for general welfare of the tribe and its members; promoting tribal economic development; donating to charitable organizations; or helping fund local government agencies’ operations. The dedication of tribal gaming revenues to these beneficial purposes has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into health and welfare programs, education, housing and public safety, assisting not only tribal members, but the surrounding communities.

The Poarch Creek Indians (PCI) in Alabama illustrate this point. Since achieving federal recognition in 1984, they have grown their gaming economic development operations from a small bingo hall with 130 jobs to three major casinos and a growing number of non-gaming enterprises with a combined total of nearly 4,000 employees, most of whom are not enrolled tribal members.  The casinos are “destinations,” with first class restaurants, spas and entertainment venues, including recreation for the local communities such as movie theaters, arcades and bowling alleys. In keeping with the IGRA rules, their revenues fund health clinics, elderly housing, scholarships, and even a 15,000 acre wildlife preserve. They funded the construction and on-going full-time staffing of two fire and rescue stations that serve the entire community and have joint assistance agreements between their tribal police and two sheriff’s departments to help with local law enforcement.

PCI has generously fulfilled the IGRA provision that allows “helping fund local government agencies’ operations,” with substantial donations to schools, transportation, hospitals, public safety operations and other local government functions. They make charitable gifts to a broad range of agencies and have an endowment program to which anyone can apply for up to $5,000 to fund a community service program.

Perhaps even more remarkable is the Creek Indian Enterprises Development Authority through which PCI is expanding their business operations into a diversified group of enterprises bringing economic development to the entire state, and especially good jobs to areas where, not so long ago, share cropping was still prevalent. PCI operates a major interstate truck stop, convenience stores, hotels and restaurants not connected to gaming, one of the largest cattle farming operations in Alabama and a high-tech manufacturing facility serving the aircraft and automobile industries and supplying parts for space vehicles. As an indicator of the Tribe’s sound economic development strategy, in 2015, these business enterprises were self-sustaining, with no supplemental funding from the gaming operations.

The drafters of the IGRA legislation intended it to be a vehicle to provide the ability for Indians to benefit their communities and help tribal members escape wide-spread poverty. The PCI economic development focus is a demonstration of the wisdom of that policy.