NIGA head says casinos, communities will rebound - Saturday 22nd of October 2005

National Indian Gaming Association Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr. visited the Paragon Casino Resort in Marksville earlier this week to meet with Tunica-Biloxi tribal officials and to present to the tribe an award for post-Hurricane Katrina efforts in helping other tribes and communities.

Stevens spoke to The Town Talk about issues facing the American Indian community, particularly gambling, and how the rebuilding of casinos will impact the communities around them.

Stevens is part of the 15,000-member Green Bay, Wis.-based Oneida tribe.

Q: Are there plans to help rebuild communities surrounding American Indian gaming casinos in hurricane-ravaged ... Louisiana and Mississippi?

A: Yes. People dont understand. Our casino industry is a billion-dollar industry, but we donate millions, about $100 million last year, to charitable causes in communities surrounding reservations and casinos. That was before the hurricanes. We will rebuild the casinos, but that has been second on our priority list. Weve first been trying to help re-establish the communities.

Q: Will jobs at rebuilding casinos be made available to non-American Indians in an effort to help stabilize communities?

A: About 75 percent of the jobs at all the casinos already are held by non-Indians. Thats always been a priority for us. What Welfare-to-Work did was put people in part-time jobs at convenience stores, without benefits. In Indian country, weve offered jobs with benefits, 401(k) and advancement.

Q: Why should people come back to those smaller-town casinos once they return home, as opposed to their larger-city alternatives, such as Atlantic City and Las Vegas?

A: Were not a competitor to those casinos. Were a complement. We offer something different. Like here in Marksville. This is Gods country. Its a safe place to spend your recreation dollars. The entertainment is excellent.

Q: Youve heard the rancor over tribes such as the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians attempting and failing to establish its own casino. Some have wondered whether American Indian gaming should no longer be a given. Your thoughts?

A: Indians have gamed since as long as any of us can remember. It is not a right given us by the U.S. government. It is recognized by the U.S. government, because we are recognized for our sovereign nation status. For the small group of powerful people who have an issue with this, we say: Look at the numbers. We help non-Indians in our communities.

Q: What is the future of American Indian gaming, particularly in those areas impacted by the recent hurricanes?

A: Technology will play a large role, as with everything else in the world, but we will continue to hold on to links to our past, which is very important. As long as there is gambling in the U.S., we will be part of it. And we will always continue to be responsible for the communities we serve.

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