E. Sequoyah Simermeyer. Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior.

President Trump's Indian gaming pick up for confirmation hearing

WEBCAST: E. Sequoyah Simermeyer Nomination Hearing

E. Sequoyah Simermeyer, President Donald Trump's pick to oversee the $32 billion and growing tribal gaming industry, will finally get a chance to share his agenda with Indian Country at his confirmation hearing this week.

Simermeyer, who currently serves as an Associate Commissioner at the National Indian Gaming Commission, is a citizen of the Coharie Tribe, an Indian nation recognized by the state of North Carolina. He also has ancestry from the Navajo Nation.

“Sequoyah Simermeyer has a wealth of experience on tribal issues working in different executive and legislative branch capacities," Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt said after Trump's June 25 announcement. “He is the ideal candidate for this position, and I urge Congress to confirm him quickly.”

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs is indeed moving swiftly. Members will hear from Simermeyer on Wednesday afternoon, a little less than a month after the U.S. Senate received the nomination.

“We appreciate the President quickly nominating a new Chair of the National Indian Gaming Commission,” said Sen. John Hoeven(R-North Dakota), the chairman of the committee.

“Mr. Simermeyer has years of experience that qualify him for NIGC Chair including serving as Counselor and Deputy Chief of Staff to the Department of the Interior’s Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, as Counsel on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, and presently as Associate Commissioner of the NIGC since November 2015," said Hoeven. "We look forward to hearing about Mr. Simermeyer’s vision for the NIGC during the confirmation process.”

If confirmed by the full U.S. Senate, Simermeyer would be the first new chairman of the NIGC in more than four years. He'd also be the first Republican leader of the federal agency since Philip N. Hogen, a citizen of the Oglala Sioux Tribe who served almost the entirety of the George W. Bush administration.

More recently, Jonodev Osceola Chaudhuri, a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, served as Chair of the NIGC for a record four years. Before that, he was acting Chair for almost two years.

Chaudhuri's lengthy tenure enabled him to carry out a broad agenda, one that focused on protecting the integrity of the Indian gaming industry, keeping on top of new technological developments, engaging in outreach with rural tribal communities and maintaining a strong workforce. His efforts were rewarded with steady growth in tribal revenues as well as the NIGC being recognized as one of the best places to work in federal government.

As an Associate Commissioner since November 2015, Simermeyer has helped carry out those initiatives. But he hasn't said much publicly about his own views and goals. Though he has regularly taken part in NIGC events and has appeared at conferences, meetings and trade shows in Indian Country, he's always done so under the guidance of the prior chair.

And despite his extensive experience in Indian policy, including a stint on the staff of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs before joining the NIGC almost four years ago, he's never been called to testify to Congress.

There have been some hints about his policy positions, just not many. Most notably, he declined -- not just once but twice -- to join final decisions in favor of the Ponca Tribe, whose leadership was finally able to open a casino last fall in Iowa after more than a decade of work.

On both occasions, Simermeyer did not explain why he refused to support the tribe's sovereign rights. But his silence is all the more glaring given that Hogen, who served as Chair during a Republican administration, as well as two other Republican-appointed members of the NIGC, originally sided with the Poncas in a decision that sparked protracted litigation in the state of Iowa and from neighboring Nebraska.

No other NIGC final decisions have been posted since he joined agency so it appears the Ponca case was the only one that generated dissent among the commissioners.

The NIGC was established as a three-member body by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988. The law requires the Chair to be nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate.

The other two members need only be chosen by the Department of the Interior and subjected to a public notice process before being seated. Simermeyer joined the NIGC as an Interior appointee in November 2015.

According to IGRA, at least two members of the NIGC must be citizens of to "any Indian tribe." The law does not state whether the tribe has to be federally recognized.

The law also requires no more than two members to be from the same political party. When Simermeyer worked at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, it was during the Republican George W. Bush administration. At the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, he served on the Republican staff.

The only other member of the NIGC is Kathryn Isom-Clause, who hails from the Pueblo of Taos, a federally recognized tribe based in New Mexico. She serves as Vice Chair and was chosen by Interior during the Democratic Barack Obama administration.

The open seat gives the Trump administration the chance to name another member and gain a Republican majority on the NIGC for the first time since 2009. Given the president's race-based hostility towards tribes and their casinos, such an idea might have inspired fear in Indian Country.

Indeed, after Trump took office in January 2017, his administration took several steps to discourage and outright prevent tribes from opening new casinos. But Secretary Bernhardt withdrew one controversial initiative earlier this year after widespread objections.

Trump, however, made big news this spring when he opposed a bipartisan bill in Congress that paves the way for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe to open a casino in Massachusetts. His post on social media, in which he repeated his use of a racial slur against a Democratic political opponent, was a prelude to more recent tweets that called on Democratic lawmakers of color to "go back" to their supposed countries of origin.

"The fact that the president claims this country as his own and wants to keep everyone in their place proves that he doesn’t understand his place," Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico), who is one of the first two Native women in Congress, wrote in The New York Times on Monday.

Just last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a symbolic resolution rebuking Trump for his "racist" tweets. It didn't say anything about his past in Indian Country, which included an unsuccessful lawsuit that claimed IGRA was unconstitutional because it was supposedly based on race.

Trump's prior efforts also included a shady advertising campaign that accused the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe of being criminals and drug traffickers because its leadership was pursuing a casino that would have competed with his gaming enterprise. He had to apologize to New York state's lobbying commission for not disclosing that he financed the ads.

Before that, Trump famously accused the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation of being illegitimate during a hearing on Capitol Hill. His race-based insult came as his commercial casino operation -- which eventually failed -- faced increased competition from Indian Country.

"Well, you go up to Connecticut, and you look," Trump told the House Subcommittee on Native American Affairs on October 5, 1993. "Now, they don't look like Indians to me."

During the proceeding, Trump also accused tribes of being incapable of regulating their casinos. Invoking multiple stereotypes at once, he claimed the Indian gaming industry was going to be overrun by organized crime, a charge that hasn't panned out.

"But to sit here and listen as people are saying that there is no organized crime, that there is no money laundering, that there is no anything, and that an Indian chief is going to tell Joey Killer to please get off his reservation is almost unbelievable to me," Trump said at the time.

Sequoyah Simermeyer's confirmation to serve as Chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission hearing takes place on Wednesday, immediately following a business meeting at 2:30pm Eastern in Room 628 of the Senate Dirksen Office Building. The session will be broadcast on the committee's website.

E. Sequoyah Simermeyer
The following biographical information was provided by the White House:

Mr. Simermeyer (Coharie Tribe) serves as a Commissioner to the National Indian Gaming Commission and is its Director of Self Regulation. Simermeyer previously advised the United States Senate Committee on Indian Affairs’ Republican leadership, served as the Deputy Chief of Staff to the Department of the Interior’s Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, and advocated on national and international policy issues with the National Congress of American Indians. Simermeyer graduated from Dartmouth College, earned a law degree from Cornell Law School, and earned a master’s degree from Vermont Law School. He and his wife have three young children.

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice
Nomination Hearing to consider E. Sequoyah Simermeyer to serve as Chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission. (July 24, 2019)

Join the Conversation