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With casino closings due to COVID-19 expected to ripple throughout Indian Country, Indian Gaming is asking for federal aid.

WASHINGTON — As a growing number of Native American casinos choose to voluntarily close in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Indian Gaming Association has asked for $18 billion in federal aid to help soften the impact on Indian Country. 

In a letter to addressed to Representatives Deb Haaland (D-NM) and Tom Cole (R-OK) of the House Native American Caucus, NIGA Chairman Ernest L. Stevens wrote that tribal governments will default on loans and won’t be able to provide health and education services without federal support to make up for lost casino revenues, according to a report by Reuters.  

“Like state and local governments, tribal governments will be stressed and many will be unable to provide basic health, education, public safety , food assistance and other critical needs to our communities,” Stevens wrote.  

In the letter, NIGA asks for help in several specific areas, including $18 billion in economic relief grants over the next six months and the extension of federal unemployment benefits to tribal gaming employees.    

The letter also urges Congress to enact legislation that will enforce a temporary 26-week restructuring on all loans and the suspension of interest on loans with tribal governments and tribal government-owned entities. Such loans would only apply to entities that closed operations to protect the public health and stop the spread of COVID-19.

To date, a large number of Native American-owned casinos have remained opened, though an increasing number of the nearly 500 Indian casinos have closed as tribal governments move to stem the spread of COVID-19, commonly referred to as novel coronavirus. With more than 700,000 employees and nearly $34 billion in annual revenues, American Indian casinos represent a crucial source of income for tribes.

It’s important for legislators and others to understand that the loss of Indian gaming revenues creates a “ripple effect” that is much greater than the closure of private casinos, Rep. Cole said in a conference call with other Indian Country leaders yesterday. 

“Remember, every tribal business supports governmental services,” Cole said. “They are not quite like private businesses, so if they shut down, the ripple effect is much greater and quite often in communities that are, frankly, under much more strain and in more difficult circumstances.  So we have to have some special recognition that these businesses are supporting hospitals, clinics, law enforcement officers and absolutely essential services in Indian Country.”  

Cole said he’s been making calls to other policymakers who want to know more about tribal casinos and encouraged tribes to reach out to their own representatives to help educate them.  

“I think the big thing is to make sure that they understand our businesses are different because they are sources of governmental revenue that fund everything else,” Cole said. “I’m not arguing that we ought to get something that someone else shouldn’t get if it was a private casino, but there’s a big difference.”  

EDITOR'S NOTE:  This story has been updated to include a link to the letter and additional details on the request made to Congress. 


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