How Native Americans became the de facto casino kings of the USA

In most states in America, casinos are only legal on Native American land. This exception has led to many tribes using the gambling industry as a way to support themselves and to bring jobs and developments to their communities.

In doing so, they have become the de facto casino kings of the United States. This has been the source of both praise and criticism by people on both sides of the issue. Online casinos have broken this control over the casino industry to a certain extent.

Being able to play real money slots from the comfort of your own home is very appealing and many people have been choosing to play at online casinos instead of going out to gamble.

Whether or not this will hurt the Native American casino industry in the long term or if we’ll simply see them branch out into running online casinos is still up in the air. For now, let’s take a look at just how Native Americans became the casino kings of the USA.


Relationship between colonizers and Native Americans

The history of white settler colonialism that most Americans are taught focuses largely on positive moments like the first Thanksgiving and Sacagawea leading the Lewis and Clark expedition across the West. In reality, the history of American colonialism is one of exploitation and genocide.

The early American government pushed Native American tribes onto small reservations made up of the least valuable land available. When tribes resisted, they were met with violence. The treaties made were exploitive and coercive and can hardly be considered actual treaties.

This relationship continued in a similar manner into the late 20th century, though with less outward violence — with the exception of residential schools, which took Native American children from their homes and forced them to conform to white culture, often resulting in mental health issues or death.


Bureau of Indian Affairs

Since 1824, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has been in charge of handling Native American issues, rights and legislation for the Federal Government. Under the terms of the treaties signed by most tribes, on reservation land, only Federal and tribal law apply.

This meant that Native Americans living on reservation land were able to maintain a degree of sovereignty. Up until the 1980s, this mainly extended to being exempt from taxation by state and local governments.

The system that this created did give Native Americans some measure of power over their lives, but it came with costs as well. Services on reservations have been notoriously underfunded, leading to a lack of schools, poor healthcare, limited infrastructure and few employment opportunities.



In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a number of lawsuits brought by individuals and tribes fought to clarify how much authority the states had to govern gaming on reservations.

These cases eventually made their way to the Supreme Court where tribal sovereignty was upheld, and the casinos were allowed to operate.

Most states in the United States, have strict laws banning or severely limiting gambling — with the major exception of Nevada of course.

The Seminole v Butterworth case in Florida and the California v Cabazon Band case in California forced states to recognize tribal sovereignty over gambling on their lands.

State governments panicked about the effects that unregulated gambling could have on their communities and about the massive loss of tax revenue that they were seeing. The federal government stepped in and introduced the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988.

This Act allowed Native American tribes to operate casinos as long as there was a measure of Federal oversight and control. It also included a provision that the Tribe and the State must agree on the location of a casino – as well as what types of games may be played there.

Casinos have become a major industry on many reservations. In 2020, these casinos generated revenues of $27.8bn. While this was a decrease from previous years due to the pandemic, it is still a significant amount of income and will most likely rebound in the next few years.

Not all casinos have been equally successful, much of the wealth is concentrated in a few states. The West Coast has seen some of the biggest successes. The Native American casinos in Washington State alone, for instance, generated nearly $7bn in revenue.

This may be due in part to the number of reservations in Washington that are close to urban centers. This gives gamblers in cities such as Seattle, Tacoma and Olympia easy access to Vegas-style casinos like the Tulalip Casino Resort, Emerald Queen Casino and Suquamish Clearwater Casino Resort.



As Native Americans began to dominate the casino industry across the United States, there were debates over whether or not this was a positive development for tribal members. Some of these arguments came from inside the tribes, with worries over how casinos could impact cultural traditions.

Other arguments against allowing Native American casinos came from white Americans and essentially boiled down to frustration that they were unable to benefit in some way. These arguments are often in the guise of concern for the wellbeing of Native Americans but ignore tribal autonomy.

The reality is that the gambling industry has overall had a positive effect for many living on the reservations. The influx of capital has made it possible to attract other businesses and build stronger communities with a stable economic footing.

At this point in time, Native Americans are still the casino kings of the USA. Online gambling might level the playing field a bit, but with so much experience in the field, it is likely that Native American tribes will be able to excel in that area as well.

Some states, including Washington, currently only allow sports betting on casino premises. This will be another revenue boost for Native American casinos. With luck, hopefully it will be more than enough to carry these casinos through the end of the pandemic and into better days in the future.