Indian Casinos: Check Your Coats and Your Civil Rights at the Door
by Ron Powell
When you enter an indian owned casino on tribal land, you give up your basic civil rights and constitutional protections. Due to the notion that tribes are self-governing "nations" and/or the mythical concept of "tribal sovereignty," there are no constitutional protections or safeguards against abuse of power or authority which may occur on tribal property. In addition, Indian tribes are insulated from liability in civil suits by a legal fiction called “tribal sovereign immunity”.
All of the currently acknowledged members of the Pequot tribe, which was recognized on a technicality in 1983, apparently are related to, or are descendants of, just two women who lived on a parcel of land in Eastern Connecticut in the 1930s. The modern tribe is thus a sort of family condominium that reconstituted itself as an Indian tribe, which has in turn become a corporation that is also a “sovereign” state.
The fact is that tribes are not sovereign at all. The United States government owns reservation land, not tribes. Tribal lands are federal territories, owned and controlled by the United States government, which has been put in reserve, similar to a military reserve, for the use of an Indian tribe. Based on our system of law, land is what sovereignty is based upon. Tribes are not "sovereign nations" because they have no sovereign control over any land holdings; there is no "nation”. Indian tribes rely almost entirely on the legal support of the federal government to continue to exist, and on federal government permission to do almost anything. Tribes exist not as independent governments, but as an extension of the federal government. Yet, American citizens are deemed to have waived, abandoned, or forfeited their constitutional rights upon entering a gaming facility which is located on an Indian reservation.
In 1988 Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) (signed by President Ronald Reagan) grants “tribal sovereignty” which enables tribes, recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), to build casinos. Under this legislation, in order to proceed with the development of casinos on Indian reservations, the states and Indians must enter into Tribal-State compacts and the federal government retains the power to regulate the gaming. The most recent Indian gaming statistics, provided by the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC), indicate that there are approximately 400 Indian gaming establishments in the United States. These casinos are operated by approximately 220 federally recognized tribes.
The two largest casinos in the world, Foxwoods in Ledyard CT, and Mohegan Sun, a few minutes away in Uncasville CT, have agreed to pay the state of Connecticut 25% of their gross slot machine revenue “so long as no other person within the State lawfully operates… [any] commercial casino games.” The terms of these agreements are weak, questionable, or silent regarding the securing of fundamental civil rights for casino patrons and employees on Indian reservations. Since entering into the agreement with Foxwoods, the State of Connecticut has received approximately 2 billion dollars from that operation alone. With so much at stake, little wonder that the civil rights of patrons and employees are lost in the bargain.
Now, because of the declining economy, states need politically “painless” revenue to pay for deficit-financing. States are less likely to be inclined to protect or defend the constitutional rights of patrons and employees of casinos located on Indian reservations. They enjoy self-regulation, immunity from lawsuit, and independence from state laws. They are also spared scrutiny by investigative journalism. Indeed, many Indians treat scrutiny of the tribal casino industry as an attack on “tribal sovereignty“, and racist virtually by definition. Tribal ideologues claim an absolute right to self-government without “interference” from state and federal governments, or any other outside institutions, such as the independent press.
The federal policies and practices which grant "tribal sovereignty" and "tribal sovereign immunity" have resulted in the denial of civil rights to patrons and employees of tribally-owned operations. Indian refusal to recognize constitutionally protected rights on Tribal land has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, which regards tribes as autonomous “nations”. Unfortunately, many judges, state officials and citizens carelessly assume that grants of “tribal sovereignty” and “tribal sovereign immunity” are somehow righting past wrongs done to Indian people. However, Constitutional protections do not reach onto Indian land, where tribal governments enjoy a degree of secrecy and immunity that would never be tolerated in any other American corporate enterprise.