III. A Brief History of Indian Gaming

By Clarkson, Gavin; Sebenius, Jim | Missouri Law Review, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

III. A Brief History of Indian Gaming


Clarkson, Gavin, Sebenius, Jim, Missouri Law Review


While commercial Indian gaming operations have sprung up only in the past quarter century, many tribes have longstanding traditions involving games of chance. (159) Blackfeet tradition recounts "how Na'pi (Old Man) brought the tribe the hoop and arrow game. ... [And how] Blackfeet continue to play traditional betting games." (160) The Blackfeet are not alone, as many tribes have such traditional games. (161) Thus Indian gaming is, in many respects, a new expression of an ancient cultural practice. (162)

A. The Early Years

Legend has it that commercial gaming on Indian reservations in the United States began as a response to a fire that destroyed two trailers on the Oneida Indian reservation in Verona, New York, in 1975. (163) The reservation had neither a fire department nor firefighting equipment, and two oneidas perished in the blaze. (164) To prevent such tragedies in the future, the Oneidas decided "to raise money for [their] own fire department ... the way all the fire departments raise money ... [through b]ingo." (165) The Oneidas launched a bingo game in a double-wide trailer, offering prizes in excess of the limits permitted by New York law. (166) The Oneidas maintained that, because they were an Indian nation, they were not bound by state bingo regulations. (167) Tribe members claimed that their right of sovereignty entitled them to run their own game and to offer a jackpot large "enough to draw non-Indians and their money-to a place they otherwise might never visit." (168)

Subsequently, according to one Oneida tribal member, "the Seminoles got wind of it" (169) and began their own high-stakes bingo game in Hollywood, Florida, in 1979. (170) The Seminole tribe contracted with a non-Indian organization to build and manage its bingo hall. (171) The agreement called for the managers to receive 45% of the profits after repayment of a $1 million construction loan. (172) The enterprise was a success, and the Seminoles repaid the loan in less than six months. (173)

As tribal bingo operations grew more successful, states demanded a cut. (174) States unsuccessfully "sought to extend their laws over [tribal] lands to ... prohibit, regulate, and/or tax tribal bingo operations." (175) Whereas the district attorney in Madison County, New York, successfully shut down the Oneidas' game, the Seminoles fought the state in the courts when Florida authorities tried to close the Seminoles' bingo hall in 1981. (176) The Seminoles argued that Florida did not have the authority to prohibit gaming on their reservation, and the Fifth Circuit agreed, (177) relying upon Bryan v. Itasca County, in which the Supreme Court held that if a state regulates but does not prohibit an activity, it may not prohibit that same activity in Indian Country under P.L. 280. (178) Thus, the Seminoles secured the right to run their game and pay out unrestricted prizes.

B. Gambling in Connecticut

In 1971, Connecticut legalized gambling when, during a fiscal crisis, the state government passed legislation sanctioning a state lottery, off-track betting, and horse racing. (179) In 1976, the state legislature authorized betting on greyhound racing as well as jai alai, (180) and created a state-run, off-track betting system. (181)

Despite the state's efforts to regulate gambling, Connecticut-based greyhound racing and jai alai operations soon were enmeshed in scandal, and reports of misconduct surfaced frequently. (182) In 1976, in response to widespread corruption, the state legislature imposed a one-year moratorium on the provision of new gambling licenses. (183)

Nonetheless, illegal activity continued to plague Connecticut gambling. In 1979, the government appointed a grand jury to investigate betting irregularities at the state's three jai alai frontons. (184) The probe led to the first arrests and convictions of players and bettors for fixing games in the forty-five-year history of jai alai in the United States.

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