From Bingo Halls to Billion Dollar Business: A History of Tribal Casinos

From Bingo Halls to Billion Dollar Business: A History of Tribal Casinos

Tribal casinos are a ubiquitous presence in the American landscape. And yet, some are surprised to learn that these establishments have a surprisingly young history. They are deeply intertwined with tribal sovereignty and the fight for economic self-sufficiency. 

Early Seeds

Today, if you gamble, depending on where you live, you face a whole range of options and choices. From anonymous poker sites to flashy online slots, there's pretty much the perfect casino game out there for just about anyone who wants to place a bet or two. The sign-up process is quick and easy, crypto is increasingly accepted, there's a ton of bonuses to be had, and the security is more advanced than ever before. 

However, it wasn't always like that. So, how did we get here?

Our story begins in the 1970s, a turbulent time on the reservations.

Many tribes faced severe economic hardship, struggling with unemployment and poverty. Tribal sovereignty which is the legal principle granting tribes self-governance on their lands presented a potential solution. In 1979, the Seminole Tribe of Florida opened a high-stakes bingo hall on their reservation, challenging Florida's ban on commercial bingo. 

This seemingly simple act ignited a legal firestorm. 

Local authorities attempted to shut down the operation, but the tribe succeeded in court. The landmark case, California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians (1983), cemented the concept that states cannot regulate gambling activities on tribal lands if those activities are legal elsewhere in the state.

Soon enough, bingo halls began popping up on many reservations across the country, generating much-needed revenue for struggling tribes.

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) and the Classification System

However, the rapid growth of tribal gaming raised concerns – and contentions. States worried about lost tax revenue and the potential for social problems. Congress argued that there was a strong need for a national framework, so the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) was passed in 1988. 

IGRA established three classes of gaming on Indian lands:

  • Class I: Traditional tribal games for charitable purposes.
  • Class II: Bingo and card games without electronic banking.
  • Class III: Slot machines, roulette, and other casino-style games (subject to negotiation with the state).

The classification system provided a structure for tribal gaming, but it also created complications. Negotiations with states over Class III gaming were often contentious, and some states refused to negotiate altogether. This disparity led to a patchwork of regulations across the country.

The Rise of Tribal Casinos

Yet, despite the challenges, tribal gaming has become a significant economic force. Revenue from tribal casinos has grown massively and created jobs as well as funded social programs on top of revitalizing reservation economies. The Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians in California, for example, completely transformed their reservation from a place of poverty to a thriving community with a world-class casino resort. 

However, the rise of tribal casinos has also been met with criticism. Concerns include the potential for increased crime and social disruption in nearby communities. Additionally, some argue that tribal casinos create unfair competition for commercial casinos, especially in states where commercial gambling is illegal.

The Modern Tribal Casino Experience

Modern tribal casinos are far from the simple bingo halls of the past. Many have evolved into vast sprawling resorts of entertainment, offering a variety of attractions beyond gambling, including hotels, restaurants, and golf courses. This diversification helps attract a broader clientele and creates a more sustainable business model.

The Morongo Resort and Casino, for example, is a AAA Five Diamond resort.

Key Differences Between Tribal Casinos and Non-Tribal Casinos

While there are many similarities between tribal casinos and non-tribal casinos, there are also key differences:

  • Sovereignty: Tribal casinos operate under the umbrella of tribal sovereignty, meaning they are not subject to state and local regulations in the same way as commercial casinos. However, IGRA establishes a framework for federal oversight.
  • Taxation: Tribal casinos are generally not required to pay state and local taxes on their gaming revenue. This can be a point of contention with commercial casino operators.
  • Regulation: Tribal casinos are primarily self-regulated, but they must also comply with IGRA and any agreements with the state. Commercial casinos are subject to a more rigorous regulatory environment.
  • Focus: Tribal casinos often emphasize cultural elements and integrate tribal history and art into their design and offerings.


The history of tribal casinos is a story of resilience, self-determination, and economic empowerment. However, it is also a story of legal battles, complex regulations, and social concerns. 

As tribal gaming continues to grow, evolve, and adapt to the changing tides of gambling and the increase in competition from online casinos, ongoing dialogue and collaboration will be crucial for ensuring sustainable growth for tribal communities.

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