As tribal nations begin to flourish with productive economic policies, they are starting to have significant impact, both within their communities and on the states in which they reside. As economic recovery moves across the United States, there will be greater presence within market segments from tribal nations. With a decrease in reliance on federal funds for their infrastructure and community services, tribal nations are becoming self-reliant and competitive within the marketplace. A recent study done by the National Congress of American Indians revealed that the three dozen tribal nations in Oklahoma, for instance, support more than 85,000 jobs — upward of 5 percent of all jobs in Oklahoma — and have an financial impact of more than $10 billion.
Gaming Is Big Business
In 1988, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act allowed tribal nations to operate casinos on their sovereign territories, as long as these casinos contributed a portion of their revenue to the state government. In the twenty years that followed, gambling revenue skyrocketed from $100 million to more than $16 billion annually.
Oklahoma is second only to California for total gambling-related revenue. Three dozen of its native tribes operate more than 120 casinos that generated $4 billion in 2014. In 2015, the state of Oklahoma received over $125 million in revenue-sharing proceeds from tribal casinos.
The revenue from these casinos has enabled tribal nations to provide essential services to their communities that were otherwise insufficient or severely lacking. More schools have been built. Water and electricity reach far more communities than they did several decades ago, and tribal elders have been able to preserve important cultural traditions.
Tourism Is on the Rise
While the relative growth of the gambling industry is fairly static, tourism is now starting to show a significant increase in revenue, as tribal nations are developing destination-driven economic opportunities in addition to more slot machines and other gambling activities. The Chickasaw Nation, for instance, has recently acquired the formerly state-run Lake Texoma Lodge and Resort, with plans to reopen the lodge as a tourist destination and business retreat center. The nearby town of Kingston will also benefit from an increase in local jobs as well as revenue from tourists seeking to stay at the rustic lodge on Lake Texoma.
In fact, cultural tourism provides more than just the opportunity to educate non-natives about the rich heritage of any of the more than three dozen tribes that currently reside in Oklahoma. As tribal tourism flourishes, it provides opportunities for the young people within a tribe to reconnect and engage with their own heritage in a way that sustains their lineage and cultural identity. These young people become more invested in their tribal communities, which leads to further engagement with their heritage, resulting in a richer cultural experience for those who are merely passing through as sightseers.
There are numerous tourist destinations in Oklahoma that showcase the state’s vibrant Native American history. The Cherokee Heritage Center in Tahlequah provides physical re-creations of indigenous history, including a full-scale Cherokee village from the 18th century. The Red Earth Art Center in Oklahoma City is home to over 1,400 pieces of native art from more than fifty different tribes. The Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa sits on 475 acres and showcases an incomparable collection of American Indian and Western art. Finally, the Spiro Mounds Archaeological Center is the only remaining site of a mound-building culture that flourished more than 500 years ago.
The Chickasaw Cultural Center in Sulphur has seen more than two hundred thousand visitors since it opened less than a decade ago, and those visitors have come from more than 17 countries. In addition to the Center, the Chickasaw Nation runs the Chickasaw Motor Inn in Sulphur and regularly conducts a national advertising campaign, enticing visitors to come explore its rich cultural heritage.
The Choctaw Nation, with a presence across ten counties in Oklahoma, accounted for more than $300 million in tourism dollars, according to a recent survey of tourist spending within Oklahoma. As the Choctaw Nation seeks to improve that revenue stream in coming years, it will have to create more jobs and more opportunities for local residents and businesses.
Commercial businesses devote resources and marketing efforts to managing their brand within the marketplace, and the distinct Native American tribes in Oklahoma are approaching the preservation of their cultural heritage in a similar way. By providing opportunities for education at various tourist destinations, the tribes are enriching the national conversation about the history of these lands prior to the founding of the United States.
While the lucrative aspect of gambling can’t be dismissed, the infrastructure necessary to run and service it can devour a significant portion of the gross proceeds. Building cultural centers and creating educational opportunities in a region help pave the way for lasting economic improvement. Providing opportunities for people of other cultures and races to experience the deep history and rich cultural legacy of Native American tribes will have an indelible impact on society and culture in general.
Learn more about the Southeastern Oklahoma State online MS in Native American Leadership program.
Indian Gaming Lawyer: The Economic Evolution of Indian Gaming