From the top: The Indian Gaming Tradeshow & Convention

May 24, 2024
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Tribal gaming is a uniquely American institution and all its uncommon attributes were on display this April at the Indian Gaming Tradeshow & Convention in Anaheim, California.

If you haven’t had much exposure to Tribal gaming, there really is nothing else like it in the gambling industry. It mixes the elements of the industry we all know – ringing slot machines, concerns about cage security – with vast and varied Native American traditions that stretch back untold years to create something that is entirely its own, with its own customs, norms and, quite frankly, vibe.

It’s this intermingling of Tribal customs and modern gaming industry practices that leads to properties like the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians’ gleaming 290,000-square-foot gaming facility in Southern California named Yaamava’, the Serrano word for the season of spring. At the annual tradeshow (in Anaheim that will return to San Diego next year), put on by the Indian Gaming Association, the exhibit hall is a fascinating mash-up of traditional gambling convention fare – towering video screens, flashing lights, booths hawking casino furniture and security systems – with vendors and ceremonies you’d expect to see at a community event celebrating diversity and different cultures.

This year in the exhibit hall, just down the row from a big slot machine manufacturer, you could spot tables selling intricate, handmade jewelry of sterling silver and turquoise, which are popular with conference attendees. National Indian Gaming Commission Vice Chairwoman Jeannie Hovland, who attended the conference and sat for an interview with Gaming America, told us one morning she was eager to browse the tables and shops.

A particular vendor sold t-shirts that took familiar fantasy characters but gave them a Native American twist. One shirt portrayed the animated character Pikachu as “Chiefachu” while another depicted Grogu, the “Baby Yoda” character from the Disney+ Star Wars shows The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett, in an Indian headdress or feathered war bonnet. A couple of mornings, while wandering around before the convention action started, we stumbled upon the ballroom at the Anaheim Convention Center where it appeared Tribal elders performed a special ceremony of some kind.

It clearly was a private event, so we didn’t think it was appropriate for us to stick around and watch. But just catching a glimpse of it gave the proceedings of the day a different feel, more solemn and meaningful.

And that, of course, is the core difference between traditional commercial gaming in America and Tribal gaming. Native American Tribes, suppressed over the centuries by colonizers, view gaming as their pathway to not only prosperity but to protecting their way of life.

Given the atrocities Native Americans have endured, it is no wonder that despite their success in the gaming industry, which was on full display at the conference, with attendees walking around sporting craved, wooden jewelry and ornate, large-brimmed hats matched with designer clothing, some were still, shall we say, less than pleased. In one panel, for example, the organizer of the conference, Victor Rocha, complained that media coverage around Los Angeles Dodgers Shohei Ohtani’s interpreter, who is accused of stealing money to pay gambling debts, was skewed against California’s gaming Tribes, who blocked the legalization of sports betting in the state in 2022.

Rocha said the subtext of the coverage was that, if the Tribes had allowed for the legalization of sports betting, “this would have never happened.” That might be a bit of an overstatement, but it’s also understandable that if your people have been under attack for centuries, you might see hints of opposition and derision everywhere. To us, Rocha’s comment underscored the uniqueness of Tribal gaming as an institution, where talk of Tribal sovereignty is just as common as casino-floor management.

That was perhaps the biggest takeaway we got from IGA this year; the extent to which gaming has become woven into the very fabric of Native American culture. American Tribes, rightfully, worry a great deal about their autonomy and are quick to assert that they should be treated on equal footing with state and even federal government agencies.

But, thanks to the way they’ve been treated historically in the US, their sovereign lands are often way out geographically, offering Tribal members little in the way of economic opportunity. Gaming, over the last several decades, has become the panacea for American Tribes, leading them out of poverty and giving them the financial wherewithal to finally assert their authority in ways big and small.

Attending IGA, you could sense the deep pride attendees have in their Tribal gaming operations, how hard they’ve fought to have those facilities built and how they’re set up to provide for not just this generation but generations to come.

At its core, the Indian Gaming Tradeshow & Convention is a gaming conference, like G2E. You go there to see the latest offerings from Aristrocrat, Light & Wonder and Interblock, to mingle with old friends and catch up on gossip, maybe learn about a new security system or cashless payment scheme.

It’s a tradeshow in every sense of the word. But, it’s also something more than that – a display of a people’s fight for their sovereignty, of their persistence in the face of obstacles, their pride and character and culture. Yeah, IGA represents commerce, one of the most American values. But it also represents an inspiring, rags-to-riches story, a narrative that is also central to the American psyche.Like we said, Tribal gaming is uniquely American.

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