Tribal sovereignty under attack - a Grande Vegas update

While we at Grande Vegas with our Vegas casino online real money fun will not be affected by the goings-on right now in Washington state, we think it's important to stay abreast of what's happening in the broader gaming world as well.  So here goes....

A suit filed by Maverick Gaming in Washington state underscores the challenges that US tribes are facing as, they believe, principles of sovereignty that were believed to be embedded in U.S. law are eroded. Analysts say that this suit is the first wave of a coordinated campaign that could see tribes’ rights, specifically regarding the operations of online casino venues and retail casino establishments in various states, placed in question.

Maverick Gaming, which operates casinos in Nevada and Colorado and card rooms in Washington, is challenging Washington’s 2020 legalization of sports betting because the “discriminatory tribal gaming monopoly” allows sports betting only on tribal lands.


Native American tribes started to get involved in running casinos after a 1970s court case in which a Minnesota couple challenged their property tax bill. The question of whether the country had the right to tax the couple, who lived on tribal lands, wound its way through the court system until it reached the United States Supreme Court which ruled that states lack the authority to regulate activities on Indian tribal lands.

Soon afterward the Seminole Tribe decided to test this new legal principle by opening a high-stakes bingo building on their Florida reservation. The state shut the bingo parlor down but the Seminoles appealed to the Supreme court which, again, issued a ruling to uphold the Indians’ right to exercise their sovereign rights on their native lands.

SCOTUS revisited the issue in 1986 when the justices ruled that gambling on native lands could only be regulated by the Federal government. In answer, Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) in 1988 which laid out a framework for native gaming and assigned supervision of native gaming to the Department of Interior’s National Indian Gaming Commission.

The IGRA gives tribes the right to open casinos in any state that has legalized gambling. So, for instance, in a state like Utah where there is no legalized gambling, native tribes cannot open casinos. Tribes must negotiate “compacts” with the state in which they are operating which sets out the responsibilities and rights of both sides, including the payments that must be made to the state.

IGRA has been challenged multiple times but to date, the challenges have not succeeded and native tribes continue to enjoy exclusive rights to operate gambling operations on their native lands in any state that has legalized gambling. Currently, 474 Indian casinos operate in the United States.

New Challenges

Maverick Gaming is the latest to challenge the rights of tribes to make deals with state governments that often exclude non-Indian gaming companies from operating. Maverick is arguing that the compact between Washington tribes and the state discriminate unconstitutionally because it is based on race.

This argument targets what has been accepted as tribal nations’ inherent right to govern themselves and determine how they will regulate activities on their own native lands.

Observers question whether Maverick’s arguments, if accepted would end the political autonomy that indigenous tribes currently enjoy. The question rests on the question of whether the preference is based on the sovereignty of tribal nations or whether it’s based on race.

“It could have really big impacts on basically every law Congress has passed that has to do with tribes and tribal citizens,” said Rebecca Nagle, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, journalist and host of the “This Land” podcast.  “It’s really the legal foundation for the rights of Indigenous nations in this country.”

Equal Protection Clause

The case rests on the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and questions whether the U.S. government’s obligations to indigenous nations violate the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law. The agreements that the government has with these tribes were negotiated, say lawyers arguing the tribes’ case, just as any government negotiates treaties with other sovereign governments.

Daniel Lewerenz of the Native American Rights Fund and assistant law professor at the University of North Dakota says “You don’t make treaties with a race or an ethnic group.  “You make treaties with a political entity, with a sovereign.”

But groups seeing to end tribal sovereignty see the case differently. “How does the federal government promote tribal sovereignty and not discriminate against the rest of us?” asked Lana Marcussen of the Citizen’s Equal Rights Alliance.

CERA has been listed as an anti-Indigenous hate group but members of the group object, saying that they simply want to ensure equal rights when it comes to tribal sovereignty issues like casinos and hunting, fishing and water rights.

Race Vs. Rights

Maverick Gaming is sharing its legal team with Chad and Jennifer Brackeen, a couple that is challenging a 1978 law that requires that in foster and adoption placements, caseworkers give preference to Indigenous families in placements of children who are members of a federally recognized tribe.

The Brackeens, a white couple, wanted to adopt a 4-year-old native girl in foster care but a Navajo family was given preference. Even though that placement fell through and the Brackeens were eventually allowed to adopt the child, they are pressing the case as the lead plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit that claims that such placement preferences are based on race and that the policy unfairly prioritizes Indigenous families.

Matthew McGill has taken the Brackeens’ case pro bono. He argued the case before the U.S. Supreme Court in November. McGill also successfully argued the 2018 Supreme Court case in which SOCTUS allowed states to legalize sports betting.

Now that Washington Governor Jay Inslee has signed a bill that allows only Washington’s tribal gaming venues to offer sports betting, McGill has filed the Maverick lawsuit where the legal arguments parallel those of the Brakeen case.


If the Maverick case succeeds, tribes fear that they could lose almost everything from their right to self-governance to the resources to preserve their traditions and culture. Tribes could also lose their economic independence.

In 2018 Maverick bought out many of the card rooms in Washington and since then, has been active in lobbying Washington lawmakers in support of legislation that would allow sports betting in clubs. The gaming tribes in Washington have fought the effort tooth and nail. They see their gaming activities as the only tool that they have to provide their citizens with healthcare, education and natural resources.

The Anchorage Daily News notes that the jobs created and services funded by the tribal casinos have helped poverty rates drop in reservation communities but the tribes are still 50% behind in state average for poverty. The decision by the Supreme Court could mean life or death for these communities.


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