An Editorial: Informed Observations on the Tribal Gaming Compact(s)

In Oklahoma, smaller Indian tribal governments and members do not reap (and have never reaped) the economic benefits of legalized gaming – or any other government to government agreement for that matter.

Most recently we pointed out how via middlemen three to five times the amount of funds (hundreds of millions a year) flow to vendors engaged in the same activity for which, in Las Vegas, they would garner a fraction of the revenue.
We also pointed out how one tribe, the Chickasaw Nation has 24 casinos, all of which were placed into trust for farming and grazing purposes – but immediately converted upon transfer to casinos with no adherence to environmental laws.
We further observed that 85 percent of all gaming benefits flow to just 15 percent of the tribes and that all these inequities could be fixed in a simple equitable retrade of the compact.

For pointing out these and other things – in news articles, analyses, commentaries and editorials — this newspaper and its ownership have faced behind-closed-doors denunciation in forums controlled by defenders of Oklahoma’s status quo (i.e. the state of affairs resulting from existing tribal gaming compacts).

We don’t presume to speak “for” the government of Oklahoma. We have consciously and by choice spoken up for the have-nots (or have-littles) in this state’s Indian Country.

For the record, 100 percent of the billions of dollars in revenue flowing though Oklahoma Indian gaming facilities gets parceled out like this:

Well over one-half (55 percent) goes to three of the most powerful tribal governments: The Chickasaw, Choctaw and Cherokee.Fifteen percent roughly goes to the Osage, the Quapaw and the Creek.

Fifteen percent goes to out-of-state vendors, three to five times what would flow if the activity were taking place in Vegas.
Twelve percent flows to the rest of the 34 tribes.
Three percent goes to the State of Oklahoma as a result of tribe-by-tribe gaming compacts.

It is no wonder the Big Tribes defend the status quo. It’s nothing new. As far back as the motor fuels tax agreement in the early 90’s, whereby Tribes would agree not to undercut the State on the gas tax, the big tribes reaped 85 percent of the benefits of this $20 million in yearly payments.

Most recently the most powerful Tribes were able to ink a water settlement for 25 percent of all water sales to Texas when Supreme Court legal precedent would have only allowed them to garner the percentage of land they actually had jurisdiction over, now 1-3 percent. Meanwhile, the Kiowa, Comanche and Apache were left to fight in the court of claims for their water rights to the same Red River tributary for the next half century. 
It is easy to see why the big tribes speak of “Unity” while working together to sustain what is and to crush hopes for what is at least possible: A more equitable share of revenue for smaller tribes. At the same time they secretly plot a legal strategy once a week on Friday that leaves the smaller tribes blindfolded as to what’s to come. To be clear, they will control the deck if things remain the same.

The historic reasons to support a reapportionment of some reasonable sort are many, including what was pointed out in last month’s editorial in this space:

“When Oklahoma was formed, roughly 10,000 natives were of the five tribes – and 10,000 were of the smaller tribes. That is how the market ought to be divided. That is how it is divided in other states.”
If history were the guide, “The smaller tribes could then sell their allotment of the markets to the larger tribes and each reap tens of millions a year for tribal membership and positive programs. Even if they decide to remain out of gaming market entirely.”

That latter thought might be a path of wisdom: News broke late last month that the Eastern Shawnee Tribe in Wyandotte would, at year’s end, close its ‘Bordertown’ Casino. After a strong effort to garner market share for the last few years, the Eastern Shawnee are moving on. With the Cherokee and Quapaw poised to exploit the Arkansas market other tribes in Northeast Oklahoma will surely be affected.

Regardless, redirection of insider deals at the federal level that advantaged larger tribes combined with a new approach to state-tribal relationships through the Compact could be the basis for a better and fairer future.
As noted here last month, “Real benefits for real Indians would bring the situation [in Oklahoma] much closer to the vision of original agreements.”

Oklahoma’s smaller tribes face tremendous pressure to go along and get along with the larger tribal “players,” or risk losing even the crumbs they’ve garnered through hard work despite the disadvantages in place because of deliberately-crafted advantages the near-monopolies enjoy.

There will be more to say, certainly, as proposed compact negotiations advance.
As if in a court of law (where many of these issues may end up, again), here is our closing summation:

The state government of Oklahoma wants more for its coffers under the “exclusivity” provisions. While the tribal “Unity” group spends tens of thousands of dollars a day on glitzy advertising declaring all the tribes are in this together, the most powerful actually conspire weekly to keep what is theirs in secret and keep smaller enterprises at the margin.

This newspaper has been no fan of Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter, yet still we now applaud his moves to concentrate resources on representing the governor’s (and the state’s) interests. Along with Governor Kevin Stitt may this also be his finest hour.

As that process advances, The City Sentinel repeats the call for Oklahoma leaders to speak up for the future – not only state interests, but also the interests of Oklahomans who happen to belong to financially weaker tribal nations who have more than earned a place at the table. Instead of all the money going to Ada, Tahlequah and Durant, why not send an equitable portion to Carnegie, Binger, Tonkawa, Perkins, or Grove.

The future should be and can be forged with equity and greater justice for all, rather than guarantees of inordinate market share for a few who line the pockets of the fewer.

For now, your honors, we rest our case.