“We actually put on a working casino,” says Professor Gary Vallen, who for 25 years has been teaching Casino Gaming Management 477. “We deal the games. We have cashiers, everything. The only thing we don’t have is surveillance.
“It’s a lot of work, but a lot of fun,” Vallen says, “and a great opportunity to give students real hands-on lab experience.”
Along with raising more than $700,000 in scholarship money since its inception 25 years ago, the casino night and other NAU business and hotel management courses provide a service to an American Indian government gambling industry that, statewide, employs some 15,000 people.
“We’ve tried to be helpful to the tribes, providing consulting services, educational programs and training,” says NAU business Professor Galen Collins. That includes seminars in customer service.
The birth and growth of tribal government gambling and resort development has prompted a number of the nation’s colleges and universities to expand their hotel and hospitality curriculums to meet the growing demand for industry training and education.
But gambling is not normally included in a university curriculum. And institutes of higher learning play a limited role in ensuring indigenous citizens get the training and education to pursue careers in a tribal gambling industry that consists of some 480 facilities in 29 states.
That’s unfortunate. The congressional intent of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) of 1988, which paved the way for what is today a $31.2 billion tribal casino industry, was to assist tribes in strengthening their governments and building diversified economies.
Gambling is being looked to by some 240 tribal governments to provide jobs and, hopefully, diminish social ills associated with impoverished, depressed indigenous communities.
It’s proven to be a successful tool in doing just that. Economist Alan Meister, author of the annual Indian Gaming Industry Report, puts the number of tribal casino jobs at 333,717.
Meanwhile, tribal governments employ approximately 5,900 gaming regulators, according to the National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA), the industry’s trade group and lobby.
Arizona, Oklahoma, Minnesota and Washington each employ 15,000 to 18,000 casino-hotel workers, according to tribal gambling associations. Roughly 30 percent of the jobs are held by indigenous employees. The percentage rises to 60 to 70 percent or higher on rural reservations.
But training and educating tribal citizens to fill jobs in the tribal government gambling industry is a complex task—more so than for commercial casino companies with a string of properties to provide the training and management expertise to create a skilled workforce.
Tribes must be creative and resourceful in ensuring tribal citizens—many victims of cyclical poverty—get the opportunity to both operate and regulate their gambling enterprises.
This can be challenging.
Small Casinos, Big Challenges
Some 70 percent of the tribal industry’s gross revenue is generated by about 75 largely urban casinos operated by tribes with small enrollments. The bulk of the workers are non-Indians from surrounding communities.
Many of the other tribal casinos are marginally successful operations on rural, often remote and economically depressed reservations where unemployment rises to 50 percent or higher.
“It’s not like you’re in Vegas and you can go to a dealer’s school or UNLV,” says Sheila Morago, a member of the Gila River Indian Community of Arizona and executive director of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association.
“Many tribes are in places where there are no schools. Of course you have to bring the training to them.”
With the exception of the Sycuan Institute on Tribal Gaming at San Diego State University, which offers in-depth study in the operation and regulation of government casinos, tribal gambling is a subject not found at the nation’s colleges and universities. (See page 20.)
Tribes have availed themselves of gambling law, regulatory and hotel and hospitality management courses and executive-level training programs at the University of Nevada, both the Las Vegas and Reno campuses.
Roughly 20 of the 60 to 70 participants in the University of Nevada’s Executive Development Program (EDP), a 10-day series of seminars held annually in Lake Tahoe, are indigenous Americans.
Ken Manuel, a citizen of the Gila River Indian Community who recently was appointed CEO of the tribe’s casino enterprise, is an alumnus of the EDP seminars.
“We have a tremendous relationship with the tribes,” says Bo Bernhard, executive director of the International Gaming Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Regulations Take Priority
To be sure, gambling is not a career that requires extensive academic credentials. It’s largely an industry in which people work their way up from the slot floor and table game pit, some to supervisory, management and CEO-level positions.
Gambling has, in fact, proven to be the ideal economic development tool for remote Indian communities lacking resources, government infrastructure and a skilled workforce.
With the passage of IGRA in 1988, many tribes initially looked to casino companies and management firms to provide the employee training and expertise to run their gambling operations.
Meanwhile, tribal leaders focused on setting up commissions and other government functions to ensure the operations adhered to IGRA, tribal-state regulatory compacts and other federal rules and regulations.
“When tribes first started opening casinos, they outsourced casino operations to experts from other jurisdictions,” says Kate Spilde, professor of gambling studies at the Sycuan Institute. “Tribes focused on growing their governments. That’s what they needed to do.
“Tribes were launching a whole new industry. They needed gaming commissioners to regulate the casinos. That’s where the priority was. The integrity of the industry was very important to tribes. They were willing to outsource the operations, but they were not going to outsource the regulations.
“There are thousands of slot techs,” Spilde says. “but only a few gaming regulators.”
IGRA limits management agreements to seven years, capping revenue to outside companies at 30 percent of the profits.
Companies such as Grand Casinos, Boyd Gaming, Harrah’s (now Caesars Entertainment), Station Casinos and others were tasked with training a tribal work force and providing opportunities for indigenous citizens to move into the management ranks.
“We were obligated under the contracts to give first preference in employment to tribal members and second preference to other Native Americans,” says Lyle Berman, whose Grand Casinos operated tribal facilities in Minnesota and Louisiana. “We took our obligation very seriously.
“We also had training processes to bring tribal members and other Native Americans to upper management. We fulfilled that obligation very well,” Berman says. “We did a very good job in educating tribal members and Native Americans.
“Our success kind of hurt us in that all the tribes we did business with took over management of their casinos after seven years.”
Tribal leaders initially stressed that their citizens take positions in human resources—where Tribal Employment Rights Ordinances (TERO) gave job preference to enrolled members and other indigenous people—and marketing, promoting both the casino and the tribal government.
Training, Education Options
Many tribes have since established their own internal training programs. They provide mentoring and tuition reimbursements to encourage tribal citizens to pursue supervisory, management and executive-level positions.
This has become more important as tribal casinos evolved into hotel-casinos and, eventually, integrated resorts.
On the government side of the business, tribes have availed themselves of regulatory training and commissioner certification programs offered by NIGA. The association also provides operations seminars at its annual and midyear conferences.
“I’m seeing more detailed educational programs at the conferences,” says Andrew Hofstetter, director of the Tribal Gaming Protection Network (TGPN), which offers largely regulatory and security training to the tribes.
“I’m seeing more and more knowledge and content. The people teaching the classes are of a higher quality and there are more reference materials. There are more things you can use on the job, whether you’re a commissioner or a manager on the casino operations side.”
TGPN provides training in active shooter, human trafficking and gang-related security.
The National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC), the federal oversight agency for tribal casinos, also has a catalog of training, workshops and technical assistance courses in regulatory compliance and operations.
Participation in NIGC programs has grown in the past three years from 1,662 to 2,664 in fiscal 2017.
Gaming Laboratories International (GLI) is the industry leader in the testing and certification of electronic gambling devices, working closely with regulators, suppliers and operators in some 475 jurisdictions throughout the world.
The company—a conglomerate of mathematicians, hardware and software engineers, compliance specialists and others—has formed GLI University to provide consulting and training for the industry.
Falmouth Institute in Massachusetts provides a variety of training, certification and consulting services to tribal governments and casino enterprises. The institute, established in 1985 following passage of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, trains roughly 5,000 to 6,000 people a year, largely in government and regulatory compliance.
Falmouth designs programs to deal with new and amended Interior Department policies on government gambling and other issues. It also works with tribes on human resource issues, particularly tribal hiring preference and TERO policies.
“One thing I’ve seen—especially with tribes with large resorts—is an effort to develop their own internal training,” says Marguerite Carroll, Falmouth marketing director.
“They’re bringing in professionals—people who have worked in the industry—regardless of whether they’ve worked in tribal or commercial casinos.
“As a result, you’re seeing more and more tribal people managing their operations.”
Falmouth largely services the marginal tribes on rural reservations.
“I think we do a lot for the smaller, rural casinos,” Carroll says. “They don’t have the resources to do their own training. They probably don’t have big universities nearby.”
Many of the marginal casino operations turn to the NIGC for training and consulting.
“I think there are a lot more resources now than there used to be,” a slot manufacturing executive says of the training and educational opportunities for tribes in the gambling business. “It’s just a matter of tribes being aware of the opportunities.”
Building a Workforce
The Navajo Nation, arguably the country’s largest tribe with some 340,000 members and a three-state reservation of 27,000 square miles (roughly the size of West Virginia), got into the business late, opening the first of four casinos in 2008.
But the nation quickly made up for lost time.
Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise (NNGE) employs 1,200 people, 85 percent of whom are Navajo citizens. Seventy-four percent of the management jobs are held by Navajos, including 60 percent of the senior-level positions.
Far more impressive is the fact NNGE has generated an additional 5,296 jobs in other tribal enterprises, such as construction, utilities, ranching, agriculture and retail development.
Navajo contractors built the largely rural casinos and connected the utilities and water lines. Navajo ranches provide beef for the restaurants. Artisans supply the gift shops. Retail enterprises develop nearby roadside travel facilities and retail centers.
NNGE participates in a government-wide initiative to promote education as a means of creating economic development and opportunity on the reservation.
“Navajo is very pro-education,” says NNGE CEO Brian Parrish. “There are several things we’re doing that we’re very proud of.
“But across Navajo, the nation is making very sure that education is prominently cited in job descriptions as part of minimum requirements. They’ve set high standards.”
The nation offers employees up to $7,500 a year in tuition reimbursements. Individual development programs are crafted to all employees, and involve internal, external and online training.
“When a team member first joins us, we’re looking for a certain aptitude and attitude,” Parrish says. “Then we have a very comprehensive program to make sure the success of the new team member is the responsibility of not only their immediate supervisor, but the department director and general manager. They all participate in training and giving feedback.”
Five to eight upper-level executives participate in UNLV’s EDP every year, Parrish says.
The goal is to create opportunity on Navajo not only with NNGE, but other enterprises.
“Now we’re looking to develop more industry and enterprises so we can attract those experienced Navajos back to the reservation,” Parrish says. “When you look at the intent of IGRA, Navajo is really kind of the model success story.”
An Evolution of Tribal Talent
Gary Litzau, an Ojibwe from the White Earth Band in Northern Minnesota, began his marketing career in 1992, when Grand Casino began managing hotel-casino operations for the nearby Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.
“I attributed a lot of my success to Grand Casinos and what I learned there,” says Litzau, who later returned to the White Earth reservation. “They were very strict. Everything was uniform. You were always involved in some sort of training. You were reimbursed for college courses.
“I’m very thankful for the career I’ve had,” says Litzau, who today supervises 70 to 80 employees for the White Earth government casino enterprise.
Meanwhile, the Mille Lacs, with an enrollment of some 4,300, continues to own and operate two Grand Casinos and adjoining hotels employing about 2,900 employees.
Tribal spokeswoman Sarah Barten says “nearly 10 percent” of the workforce of Mille Lacs Corporate Ventures is made up of tribal citizens. Another 4 percent consists of members of other tribes.
MLCV includes not only the two casino-hotels but two non-gaming hotels in St. Paul, one in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma and other businesses.
MLCV CEO Joseph Nayquonabe Jr. worked his way up through Grand Casinos’ marketing department, and in 2015 was named Executive of the Year by the Native American Finance Officers Association (NAFOA).
“At MLCV, a majority of our senior leadership is Native American,” Barten said in an email. “We also offer dedicated programs for our tribal members to develop into these roles.”
The tribe provides tuition reimbursement to full- and part-time MLCV employees with a minimum of one year’s continuous service. The tribe also has teamed up with St. Cloud State University in an Introduction to Casino Leadership program for 35 employees.
There are other programs designed to encourage Mille Lacs citizens to work for the tribal government and its enterprises.
“We want our people running our casinos,” says a human resources executive with a Minnesota tribe who requested anonymity. “We’re pushing education. If you really want to make a difference, we don’t want you washing dishes.”
Sycuan Pioneers Tribal Gambling Studies
It’s appropriate that the nation’s first and only four-year degree in American Indian government casino management would be offered at San Diego State University (SDSU), in a county with more indigenous communities (18) than anywhere else in the United States.
It’s also appropriate the studies would be taught by Professor Katherine Spilde, who has a Ph.D. in anthropology, an MBA in entrepreneurial management and a childhood spent on the ancestral lands of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe in Northern Minnesota. Her parents were teachers.
Inspired by the social and economic progress created when White Earth opened the Shooting Star Casino in the early 1990s, Spilde became an advocate of tribal gambling.
“Gaming on Indian lands is about tribal governments,” says Spilde, associate professor in the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management and Endowed Chair of the Sycuan Institute on Tribal Gaming.
“There’s a lot of misunderstanding about how different tribal government gaming can be from the commercial segment,” she says, with revenues subsidizing housing, health care, education, community infrastructure and other services to tribal citizens. “It can be very complex.”
Spilde credits the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation and former chairman Daniel Tucker with the vision to launch the institute. And she credits current Chairman Cody Martinez with maintaining the Sycuan commitment.
“Kate Spilde’s program with the Sycuan, they’re really the pioneers in education,” says Andrew Hofstetter, director of tribal affairs for BlueBird CPAs, an auditing firm servicing Indian Country.
The courses in Tribal Casino Operations Management include tribal gambling history, federal Indian law and policy, tribal governance, marketing and public relations, tribal gambling regulations, and problem and compulsive gambling.
Graduating students are awarded a Bachelor of Science in hospitality and tourism management with an emphasis in tribal casino operations management.
Dozens of students have secured industry employment upon graduation, achieving positions with Sycuan, the Morongo and San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, Pechanga.net news service, Gaming Laboratories International and even MGM Entertainment, a commercial casino company.
One graduate has returned to his own tribe, the Pueblo of Sandia in New Mexico, as a gaming commissioner.
“We market ourselves as the most personalized hospitality school in the U.S. because we work with each individual student to establish the best fit for them so they stay in their career track,” Spilde says. “I really think it works.
“They’re not going to be GMs out of college. This is an under-graduate program. But I want them to at least be where they think they want to be when they start out. They can always change later on.”
Tribal leaders have historically concentrated on the governmental aspects of casino enterprises, focusing on regulations, auditing, public relations, marketing and human resources, ensuring tribal preference in hiring and adherence to Tribal Employment Rights Ordinances, or TERO.
“That government component has always been very strong,” Spilde says. “Meanwhile, the operations have always been outsourced. Running a casino can be very complex, especially an integrated resort property, which many tribes built right off the bat.
“The Sycuan Tribe changed the paradigm. They said, ‘OK, now we got our governments and gaming commissions up and functioning. But they’re all dependent on this check we get every month from the casino. We have no idea how to run the business that generates that check.’”
Despite the growth of tribal government gambling to 29 states, it is not a subject most colleges and universities readily embrace.
“Usually when they do reach out, it’s to provide programs in tribal administration, not casino operations,” Spilde says. “Universities are more comfortable with that. Gambling is still highly marginalized in society.
“Those in the industry convince themselves it’s mainstream. It’s not.”
Fortunately for the Sycuan Band, Joyce Gatta, SDSU’s dean of the College of Professional Studies and Fine Arts, did some casino dealing in Lake Tahoe while obtaining her own degrees.
“She was open to (casino studies) whereas a lot of other universities are critical of gambling,” Spilde says.