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National Indian Gaming Commission: NIGC Fiscal Year 2020 GGR Announcement Video
Indian gaming industry sees unprecedented drop in revenues due to COVID-19
Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Tribal casino revenues took a major hit due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to figures released by the National Indian Gaming Commission.

Tribal gaming facilities took in $27.8 billion in gross gaming revenues fiscal year 2020, the independent federal agency announced on Tuesday. That represented an unprecedented decline of 19.5 percent, returning the industry to days not seen in almost two decades.

“This fiscal year 2020 report indicates Indian gaming revenues — like other parts of the national economy — have suffered because of the COVID pandemic,” NIGC Chairman E. Sequoyah Simermeyer said in a video announcement.

“The industry has not seen this significant decrease in nearly 20 years,” added Simermeyer, a citizen of the Coharie Tribe who is a Trump-era political appointee to the NIGC.

National Indian Gaming Commission Gross Gaming Revenues 2020
According to the National Indian Gaming Commission, tribal gross gaming revenues in fiscal year 2020 reverted to the level seen in fiscal year 2012. Image: NIGC

Every region of Indian Country has been impacted economically by the coronavirus, which itself has taken a disproportionate toll on the health and well being of American Indians and Alaska Natives. At one point, every tribe in the nation shut down their casinos amid the onset of the pandemic in the spring of 2020.

The results of the widespread closures are seen in the figures released by the NIGC. Double-digit declines in gaming revenues occurred in every region of the country — ranging from a massive 36 percent drop in the Great Plains to a more modest yet significant loss of 13.2 percent in the area that includes California, the largest Indian gaming market in the United States.

“Unfortunately due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all eight administrative regions reported a decrease in their gross gaming revenues,” said NIGC Vice Chair Jeannie Hovland, a citizen of the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe who is another Trump-era appointee to the agency.

National Indian Gaming Commission Gross Gaming Revenues 2020
Gross gaming revenues in fiscal year 2020 fell by double-digit percentages in all regions of Indian Country, according to the National Indian Gaming Commission. Image: NIGC

Despite the dramatic declines, the NIGC sought to put a positive spin on the situation. Simermeyer, who in a news release described the latest revenue figures as a “temporary setback for Indian gaming,” noted that 95 percent of tribal casinos have since reopened.

Still, the announcement comes at an ominous time for Indian Country’s handling of the pandemic. Data from the Indian Health Service has shown an explosion in new COVID-19 cases, with most of the increases attributed to the highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus.

The region with the highest rate of new COVID-cases is in fact the same place where the NIGC made its public announcement about the revenues. Both Simermeyer and Hovland took part in an in-person conference being hosted by the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association this week.

Few masks could be seen in the crowd as Simermeyer and Hovland spoke from the podium of the OIGA event in Oklahoma City on Tuesday. A livestream featuring the two officials was posted on the NIGC’s Facebook page in the afternoon but was no longer available later in the day.

“It’s been over 530 days since the first Indian gaming operation closed due to COVID,” Simermeyer said from Oklahoma City Convention Center during the livestream, which was viewed by Indianz.Com before disappearing from the NIGC’s social media channel. The audio and video appeared choppy throughout the short broadcast.

According to the IHS, the Oklahoma City Area — which serves tribes and their citizens in Oklahoma, Kansas and portions of Texas — has recorded the highest rates of new COVID-19 cases over the past few weeks. Data from August 14 shows 19.2 percent of coronavirus tests have returned positive for the diseases.

The rate has been steadily growing as the Delta variant infects mostly unvaccinated people throughout the nation, not just in Indian Country.

“The pandemic isn’t over,” noted Robyn Sunday-Allen, the chief executive officer of the Oklahoma City Indian Clinic, a non-profit urban Indian health provider that has been working to vaccinate as many people in the region as possible.

The spread of the Delta variant, however, has not prompted widespread closures of casinos in Indian Country. The Chickasaw Nation, which operates more gaming facilities than any other tribe in Oklahoma and in the U.S., continues to serve patrons at places like the WinStar World Casino and Resort near the Texas border.

“What we’re concerned about is heading into fall,” Dr. John Krueger, who serves as chief medical officer and chief quality officer for the Chickasaw Nation’s health system, told CNTV News, the tribe’s news program.

“How you do in summer portends how you are going to do in the fall months. That’s the concern,” Krueger said on the program. “That’s why now is the time to go ahead and get vaccinated, because it’s going to be September pretty soon, and you’ll want to have two doses in.”

The Chickasaw Nation has administered over 62,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to Krueger. And like many others, the tribe has been working to innoculate all area residents, Indian and non-Indian alike, from the coronavirus as Delta continues to spread among those who have not yet been vaccinated.

CNTV News: Chickasaw Nation health officials are closely watching the rise in COVID-19 infections from the Delta variant

“Most of the variants that are being reported now in our region are Delta,” said Krueger, who attributed 85 to 90 percent of new cases to the variant.

“Delta has basically taken over United States now, and now we’re ramping up in terms of the number of infections it’s causing,” Krueger added.

According to the NIGC, tribes in the Oklahoma City region, which covers western Oklahoma and Texas, reported a 22.7 percent decline in their gaming revenues. The Tulsa region, which includes eastern Oklahoma and Kansas, saw a 14.7 percent drop.

The NIGC was established by federal law to oversee the tribal casino industry. Under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, the agency is supposed to consist of three members — a chair, a vice chair and an associate commissioner.

Sequoyah Simermeyer
E. Sequoyah Simermeyer serves as chair of the National Indian Gaming Commission. He was nominated to the post by Republican former president Donald Trump. Photo: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs

Two of the three members are required to be citizens of “any Indian tribe,” according to IGRA, a phrase that isn’t defined in the law. Simermeyer, who at one point claimed to have “ancestry” from the Navajo Nation, is the first person from a non-federally recognized tribe to serve was chair of the NIGC.

Simermeyer, an attorney who previously worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, was nominated to the top NIGC post by Republican former president Donald Trump in 2019. During his confirmation process in the U.S. Senate, he did not make any mentions of Navajo ancestry.

Hovland joined the NIGC on January 17, barely three days before Joe Biden, a Democrat, was sworn into office as the 46th president of the United States. She was not required to undergo Senate confirmation, though she quickly sailed through the process when she served as commissioner of the Administration for Native Americans, an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services, during the Trump era.

Former Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, another Trump figure, orchestrated Hovland’s appointment to the NIGC after their boss lost the November 2020 election, timing the action so that she would be installed before Biden came on board. According to her publicly available resume Hovland lacks a college degree.

Jeannie Hovland
Jeannie Hovland serves as vice chair of the National Indian Gaming Commission. Photo: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs

Hovland’s addition meant the NIGC had a full slate of three commissioners for the first time in years. But also meant that the there was one lone Democratic appointee — Kathryn Isom-Clause, who hails from the Pueblo of Taos.

Isom-Clause, however, has since departed the NIGC. She is now serving as deputy assistant secretary for Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior.

“During Kathryn’s tenure she was vital in developing partnerships and enhancing resources in the fight against human trafficking,” Simermeyer said in a July 12 news release. “She assisted in the creation of the first human trafficking bulletin, which highlights the opportunities for the regulatory community and the gaming industry to contribute to the development of innovative approaches and the promotion of many of the best practices that exist across the Indian gaming industry. Her impact within the agency will not end at her departure.”

Isom-Clause’s move opens the door for the Biden administration to make a new appointment to the NIGC. According to IGRA, no more than two members of the agency can be from the same political party, so her replacement would have to be a Democrat or an Independent affiliated person.

Under IGRA, the appointment would be in the hands of Secretary Deb Haaland, a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna who is the first Native person to lead the Department of the Interior and the first Native person in a presidential cabinet.

According to the law, each member of the NIGC serves a term of three years. Simermeyer’s stint would be up in November 2021. Hovland’s term presumably ends in January 2024.

The Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association’s trade show and conference, pitched as bringing the tribal casino family “back together” after COVID-19 closures, began on Monday. The meeting concludes on Wednesday.

National Indian Gaming Commission Documents
News Release: 2020 Indian Gaming Revenues of $27.8 Billion Show a 19.5% Decrease [PDF]

Graph: 2020 Gross Gaming Revenue Trends [JPG] [PDF]

Graphic: 2020 Gaming Revenue Distributed by Region [JPG] [PDF]

Chart: 2020 Gaming Revenue Comparison [JPG] [PDF]

Chart: 2020 Gaming Revenues by Range [JPG] [PDF]

FY 2020 Gross Gaming Revenue Frequently Asked Questions [PDF]

FY 2020 Gross Gaming Revenue Infographic [PNG]
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