All About Indian Tribal Casinos in The USA

In the US, the term Indian tribal casinos refer to gambling enterprises owned by federally recognized Native American tribal governments that operate on the reservation or other tribal lands. From full casino facilities with slot machines and high-stakes gambling to smaller amenities offering games such as bingo, lotteries, and video poker – a range of business operations is included.

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Because U.S. laws recognize certain forms of tribal sovereignty and self-government, tribal casinos enjoy some immunity from direct regulation by individual states. However, all operations regarding tribal gaming must comply with the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 and other federal laws. Tribal gaming is a very complex, intertwined, and interesting subject. 

A Little Bit Of History

The growth of Indian tribal casinos can be traced to the late 1970s when Native American tribes began operating bingo halls to raise funds for tribal purposes. While bingo games were legal in most states, there were restrictions on the size of the jackpot and how often games could be held.

Things heated up when tribes in Florida and Wisconsin tried opening high-stakes bingo games on their reservations. The Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin and the Seminole Tribe of Florida took their states to court, arguing that the tribes were sovereign nations. Therefore, not subject to state limitations on gambling.

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In 1981, the court ruled that the Seminole Tribe could operate high-stakes bingo halls because the state of Florida did not have regulatory power over the tribe, a sovereign governing entity. A similar ruling was issued in  Oneida Tribe of Indians v. State of Wisconsin in the same year. 

Other tribes followed their footsteps and sued their states, winning case after case. This led to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, a federal law providing a legal framework for tribal gaming.

Indian Gaming Regulatory Act

Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) was signed into law by Ronald Reagan in 1988 by the US Congress. IGRA set the stage for tribal government-owned facilities, simultaneously shaping how this new industry would develop and how tribal governments would invest gaming revenues.  

The act divides tribal gaming into three classes:

  • Class I – Tribal ceremonies
  • Class II – Bingo and similar competition-based gaming
  • Class III – Slots and table games

Class III tribal gaming requires a tribal-state gaming compact, the negotiated agreement between two legal entities. A federally recognized tribe and the state in which it resides, in this case. The US Department of the Interior must approve all tribal-state compacts once settled. 

casino law

However, tribes can only negotiate for those Class III games already approved by the state at non-tribal casinos. Overcoming this limitation via tribal-state compacts is possible in theory, while in practice quite rare. 

Side by side with the passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was the creation of the National Indian Gaming Commission, enacted to support and promote tribal economic development, self-sufficiency, and strong tribal governments through the operation of gaming on tribal lands. 

Who Operates a Tribal Casino?

Each tribal casino is owned by one or more federally recognized American Indian tribes. On the other hand, that doesn’t automatically mean that tribes operate such casinos as well. 

indian casino

Sometimes, they can decide to let a professional casino operator run their Indian tribal casinos. Although the casino operator takes a cut of revenues, this can be a good business decision as a professionally run casino can generate much more profit to share.

For instance, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians owns both tribal casinos that exist in North Carolina. However, the tribe contracted Harrah’s, a division of Caesars Entertainment, to operate it on their behalf. 

The Biggest Indian Tribal Casinos in the US 

The United States is home to over 520 American Indian tribal casinos, owned by 245 of the nation’s 574 federally recognized tribes. These types of gambling venues currency operate in 29 of 50 states. Oklahoma has the most tribal casinos (140) while California stands in second place (74). Both states are also leading the way in terms of tribal casino gross gaming revenue. 

Ranked by the number of slot machines, table games, and the size of the gaming floors, these are the 10 largest Indian tribal casinos in the US:

  1. WinStar World Casino and Resort, Oklahoma – 600,000 gaming square feet with 7,400 slots, 100 table games, 46 poker tables
  2. Foxwoods Resort Casino, Connecticut – 344,000 gaming square feet with 4,800 slot machines, 250 table games, 114 poker tables
  3. Mohegan Sun, Connecticut – 300,000 gaming square feet with 5,000 slot machines, 300 table games, 42 poker tables
  4. Seminole Hard Rock Casino, Florida – 216,000 gaming square feet with 5,000 slot machines, 140 table games, 46 poker tables
  5. San Manuel Indian Casino, California – 220,000 gaming square feet with 4,800 slot machines, 130 table games, 32 poker tables
  6. Pechanga Resort & Casino, California – 200,000 gaming square feet with 4,500 slots, 154 table games, 54 poker tables
  7. Choctaw Casino Resort, Oklahoma – 218,000 gaming square feet with 4,300 slot machines, 48 tables games, 26 poker tables
  8. Mystic Lake Hotel and Casino, MN – 150,000 gaming square feet with 4,000 slot machines, 100 tables games
  9. Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort, North Carolina – 150,000 gaming square feet with 3,280 slot machines, 100 tables games, 20 poker tables
  10. River Spirit Casino, Oklahoma – 136,800 gaming square feet with 3,100 slot machines, 32 table games, 12 poker tables

Bonus Tip: Don’t Cheat In Indian Tribal Casinos!

As mentioned, federally recognized American Indian tribes have tribal sovereignty supported by the federal government. Meaning they in general have tribal laws, courts, and police. Getting caught cheating in a tribal casino is a big no-no as the tribal police will take you to tribal jail where you next discover you have no constitutional rights to due process or other protections.

casino cheating

The best advice is simple – don’t cheat at a tribal casino. Cheating in any casino can have serious consequences, but in Indian tribal casinos, it can end quite ugly, with criminal charges and jail time. 

What’s The Future Of Tribal Gambling?

Over recent years, tribal gaming has generated close to 45% of all gaming revenues in the US. According to experts, that percentage has been increasing and some even predict that tribal gaming revenue should exceed commercial revenue within the next decade, reshaping the American history of gambling. 

Very likely scenario since there are 465 commercial casinos (including land-based, riverboat casinos, and racinos) operating in 25 states compared to 524 venues operated by tribes in 29 states. These are all signs indicating a bright future for Indian tribal casinos.

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