NIGA Chairman Stevens addresses the tourism attendees at the annual NATOW Conference in Wisconsin

Organizations sign historic Memorandum of Understanding to further collaboration between NATOW and NIGA

National Indian Gaming Association Chairman Ernie Stevens, Jr., and Native American Tourism of Wisconsin Chairman Peter LaBlanc joined by the NATOW Board of Director's after signing the historic MOU toward further collaboration between NATOW and NIGA.

National Indian Gaming Association Chairman Ernie Stevens, Jr., and Native American Tourism of Wisconsin Chairman Peter LaBlanc joined by the NATOW Board of Director's after signing the historic MOU toward further collaboration between NATOW and NIGA.

NIGA/NATOW  -  Stockbridge Munsee, WI - The Native American Tourism of Wisconsin (NATOW,) successfully held their Annual Conference and Golf Tournament last week at the North Star Mohican Casino Resort and the Pine Hills Golf Club in Bowler, Wisconsin.

The three-day agenda culminated with a Question and Answer dialogue with National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA) Chairman Ernie Stevens, Jr., who took to the stage as part of the final NATOW Gets Real session to eloquently discuss the impacts of tourism and Indian gaming in Wisconsin and beyond.  The discussion was hosted and led by Bobbi Webster, Public Relations Director at Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, where a number of tourism impact topics were discussed.

The first question posed by Ms. Webster was, "Define what tourism is to you?"  Chairman Stevens responded, "It is understanding Indian Country, who we are and where we come from.  Learning about our culture and heritage and the unique contributions we make in our communities."

She then went on to ask, "What stands out as your most memorable moments in Native Tourism?  What have you experienced in the way of Native Tourism?"  Stevens replied, "Cutting the ribbon at the Oneida Casino was one of the first memorable experiences I had.  My Grandma, Aunt Anna, Uncle Purcy and all our relatives from near and far came together for that event.  It brings us back to the memories of how far we've come.  My teenage son was able to sit beside me during the entertainment that evening.  Now he's finished college and is serving on the Tribal Council.

Stevens added, "That is only one example of how much has changed.  I also remember the Grand Opening for the National Museum of the American Indian on 'the Mall' in Washington, D.C.  The Mall is is 1.2 miles long and it was filled with Indian People from all over.  I really wished that my whole family was there with me to witness this event.  It was an historical event and brought many of our Native families together.  The opening took Indian Country to a new level.  As kids we went to museums and learned the dominant society's version of our history.  We saw things that ridiculed our people, ravaged the sacredness of our ancestors and our ceremonial items and heard stories that were disrespectful and untrue.  Today, our stories are told from our own point of view and based on the teachings that have been handed down through our culture from time immemorial.  Our presence empowered us and filled us with pride.  It is great to know that we are sharing our history with people from around the country and the world every day at the museum!"

"Another example of a memorable moment was in going to the Grand Opening of an expansion of the Shoshone Rose Casino in Wyoming.  The Eastern Shoshone casino is in a small town and it isn't easy to get to.  It is one of many of the more rural settings we have in Indian Country.   Their expansion was made possible through financing from another Tribal Nation.  To stand there with the leadership, their regulators and their community to hi-lite an expansion, even though rural, was an amazing gathering and celebration.   Additionally, I stood side by side with Chairman Charlie Vig and observed yet another small casino with giant pride and opportunity moving forward because of tribes working with tribes.  The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux was again a trend setter and supporter of another Tribal Community. These are the kinds of ventures that create good memories of tourism at its best in Indian Country," said Chairman Stevens.

He went on to say, "These are only a few of the many examples I can share from over the past sixteen years.  Although we still have a long way to go before we see parity in Economic Development in Indian Country, we have become the experts in the Gaming Industry.  We run solid, highly regulated and professional entertainment operations.  What I saw at Shoshone rose was a traditional native community, offering hospitable service and a unique and pleasurable experience that culminates what Tribal Government Gaming and Native Tourism is all about."

Ms. Webster continued with her next question, "Indian Gaming has attributed to the success of building an economy for Tribes.  Can you share your thoughts on how far we've come toward meeting that goal?" The Chairman quickly responded, "Back in the day, when we first got started with Class III Gaming, we had a friendly rivalry in our State.  All the Tribes shared their data and united in compact discussions with the State.  I remember traveling from Tribe to Tribe for strategy meetings and the feasts that each Tribe laid out for us.  It was great!  Today we are tourist destinations!  Indian Gaming has been the best Economic Development strategy for Indian Country.  With that, I have to share my Bingo Queens story.  Ironically, as a teenager I was not a big fan of gaming.  What I saw was all these strangers piling into our community in the evening and on the weekend to fill our gymnasium.  I truly believe that gym was only for us kids and that the only way I could be a better boxer and basketball player was to practice and work out all the time.  It was a deep frustration for me, because I had to wait until they were done and then move all the tables and chairs out of my way to get my work-out in.  It was a problem for the staff when I would leave abruptly and not replace the tables and chairs.  The newly appointed Administrators of the bingo operation were two Moms; Sandra Ninham and Alma Webster, who we referred to as the Bingo Queens, sat me down and talked to me.  They helped me understand what economic development was and how it helped our community.  They explained that bingo helped pay the light bill so I could use the gym on the days when there was no bingo, how it helped buy uniforms for our teams and how it bought basketballs and other equipment that we needed for sports.  Today, we have four to five state of the art gymnasiums in our community!  Those 'strangers' coming into our community are not a nuisance, they are turning dollars over in our economy and helping to create jobs, with good wages and benefits and they help our government provide services at the Nursing Home, Health Center and Recreation Center."

He added, "Today we're a $30-Billion dollar industry.  We are our own experts.  The world around us benefits from what we are doing...we provide almost 700,000 jobs when you include gaming and non-gaming amenities!  With gaming; education, professionals and experts continue to grow in Indian Country.  For many Tribal Casinos, as a result of their rural locations, it's about providing jobs that stimulate the local economy.  Gaming has provided the means for Tribal economies to begin to thrive and impact the neighboring communities around them."

Chairman Stevens concluded, "We need to keep maximizing the partnerships we have with the National Congress of American Indians, the American Indian/Alaska Native Tourism Association and Native Tourism of Wisconsin.  Having unity and standing together is so important.  We need to keep working together like we did when we had little to nothing.  Teamwork, hard work and careful planning are keys to our success."

The final question was, "What role does hospitality play in the Casino and tourism industries?"  Chairman Stevens responded, "Interacting with our Customers is very important.  We need to be checking 'the floor' and interacting with our Customers to give them the best experience.  Serving the customer really matters.   In the world we live in today, we have to help our folks understand the significance of being kind, courteous, hardworking, and friendly.  It will lead our customers to coming back again and again."

Ms. Webster then turned to the audience to see if there were any questions. The question posed was, "There is a new administration in Washington, DC.  What is their view on Indian Gaming?"  Chairman Stevens responded, "We are giving them the benefit of the doubt.   We continue to be objective and continue to educate, work with them and help them to understand.  It is not the first time that we've had to do this and it certainly won't be the last.  It is important to understand that they see the world differently.  But we must remember and remind the US Congress that they have a responsibility to protect Indian Country.  We [Indian Country] must ban together and communicate the importance of our governments.  We must be unified and working together.  There are many discussions that center on Economic Development and infrastructure development for Indian Country.  It is vital that we pursue these discussions and help them to understand how important building economies are to Indian Country.  We must lobby, educate and help the Congress and Administration understand that they have a trust responsibility to Tribes.  In our advocacy we sometimes need to be patient and assertive, so we can provide historical and appropriate legal analysis.  Sometimes it is difficult based on the history, limited understanding and lack of communication yet is imperative that we tow the line and move forward.  The only way we'll win these battles is to help them understand Tribal Governments and our unique relationship with the United States which is cemented in our Treaties and the US Constitution."

At the closing of the panel, NATOW Chairman Peter LaBlanc and NIGA Chairman Stevens signed a historic Memorandum of Understanding to further collaboration between NATOW and NIGA.   Chairman Stevens remarked, "Sitting here with Chairman LaBlanc reminds me of the old days.  Back to when Compact discussions were taking place.  The Wisconsin Tribes had unity, we initiated our advocacy for Indian Gaming in Wisconsin together and we went to Washington, DC in the same fashion.  It is an honor to sign this agreement which hi-lites the strength and beauty of our Tribal Nations working together here in Wisconsin."  The MOU calls for both organizations to collaborate in supporting long-term economic vitality of Tribal communities, promoting tourism development and capitalizing on international and domestic tourism in Indian Country.  The MOU has a statement of mutual interest which says; "Signatories to this MOU consider tourism, recreation and heritage resources to be economic and cultural assets that will increase in value with additional coordination and cooperation between NATOW and NIGA in the development, conservation, management and promotion of tribal tourism."  The NATOW Board of Directors joined the Chairmen on the stage to witness the signing of this historic agreement.