The National Indian Gaming Association opened the doors to the new Stanley R. Crooks Tribal Leaders Conference Center at its headquarters in Washington, D.C. June 14.
NIGA’s headquarters, located across from the Library of Congress and a short walk to Capitol Hill, makes access to members of Congress easier for the organization to fulfill its mission of advancing the lives of Indian people economically, socially and politically.
“This is going to make our business more fluid and make Tribal leaders much more visible,” said NIGA Chairman Ernest L. Stevens. “Mostly, we are going to talk about gaming and tribal sovereignty, but there are so many other issues. Now whenever teams come to Washington, they have a home here.”
Stevens envisions the 10,000-square foot conference center, named for the former chairman of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Tribe of Minnesota, as a place for Tribal leaders to congregate and strategize before going to the Capitol to fight for issues important to Indian Country.
“This is our strategy and our home,” Stevens said. “Mostly it’s about Indian Country coming here to go to work. The most important thing is to stand together and be of one mind. We’ve never been defeated on any major magnitude when we put those tribal leaders around the table. This will be one of the most powerful rooms in the history of Indian Country. Every time something hits the fan, this is where we’re going to be.”
The conference center will be available primarily for Indian Country and its constituents, senators, representatives and federal employees working on behalf of Tribal governments.
“This facilitates the dialogue the founding fathers of NIGA sought when they established NIGA in 1984,” said Jason Giles, NIGA executive director. “Travel and space limitations are no longer an excuse; it’s a two minute walk for congressmen, a five-minute walk for senators and every federal agency is right around the corner. When Tribal governments and agencies need to meet, we have the space. There is no excuse for a lack of dialogue.”
Fundraising for the expansion project began in 2012 and the conference center was completed thanks to donations from Tribes nationwide. The Seminole Tribe of Florida contributed $50,000.
To help pay the bills, NIGA will rent the space to other organizations when Tribal leaders don’t need it. Political fundraisers are already scheduled for members of Congress, but NIGA officials anticipate the conference center will be used regularly by Tribal organizations.
After the ribbon cutting and welcome reception, NIGA got right to business with the summer legislative summit, at which more than two dozen members of Congress were scheduled to speak with Tribal leaders. The conference center will change the way NIGA conducts the summits, which have been held in public places in the past.
“Now that it is at a private non-profit organization, we can set the attendee and invite list,” Giles said. “If we want to have frank discussions with friends, we can do that. If we want to open it up to the media, we can do that. There is a lot more flexibility going forward.”
For the rest of the year NIGA will concentrate on issues such as the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act to elevate Tribal governments onto the same playing field as state and federal governments as it pertains to labor laws.
“It’s a decades old battle,” Giles said. “We want to hold [President] Obama to his promise to defend Tribal sovereignty. In 2017, there will be a brand new Congress and President so we’ll have to feel our way forward.”
Stevens, who has worked with NIGA for 15 years, believes his role as chairman of a non-profit trade association is to encourage and motivate NIGA members to make a difference by “pounding the Hill” on legislative issues.
“When the leaders come here, they have a task to do,” he said. “It’s not about one tribe or NIGA, it’s about those community members they represent. What we have now is amazing, but we have to get it done. We have to protect Tribal sovereignty. The heart of Indian Country, that’s who we are representing and who we are responsible to.”
Seminole Media Productions’ Special Project Editor Jonathan Feld contributed to this story.