Port: Tribal sovereignty is a two-edged sword

Forum Focus: E-tab concerns
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MINOT, N.D. -- In 2017, North Dakota lawmakers approved the use of electronic pull-tab machines in charitable gaming.

In practice, these machines are almost indistinguishable from slot machines, and I'm not sure even the proponents of their legalization were ready for how popular they'd prove.

A recent article by my colleague , reporter Natasha Rausch, found that charitable gaming revenues have increased about 52% in the two years since the bill legalizing e-tabs was passed.

Keep in mind, though the Legislature acted in 2017, the machines didn't become available for gaming until August 2018.

Per the Associated Press , there are now some 2,300 e-tab machines operating across 570 locations in North Dakota.


Suffice it to say that the impact on gaming has been profound.

So much so that North Dakota's tribal-owned casinos are feeling the pinch.

I recently interviewed Scott Davis, who serves as the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for Gov. Doug Burgum's administration, and he estimated that tribal gaming operations had seen a 30 to 45% decline in revenues since e-tabs were implemented.

The tribes now want to act against this new competition.

They've formed a new organization called the United Tribes Gaming Association. While the group hasn't yet taken a position, they're "looking at our options" as Cynthia Monteau, executive director for the group told the AP .

Standing Rock Chairman Mike Faith has said he'd like state lawmakers to put a cap on the number of e-tab machines operating statewide.


Should lawmakers heed that request?

It gives me no joy to see our tribal neighbors hurt economically. They have long struggled to address chronic poverty and economic stagnation in their communities, things which have deep roots in historical injustices done to them by our government. They have found a degree of success with their gaming operations, and I'd like to see that success continue.

Yet when the tribes were pushing to create their gaming operations, they stood on tribal sovereignty. The casinos stand on their land where they make the rules. They were under no obligation, they argued, to abide by the State of North Dakota's prohibitions on gambling.

That's a two-edged sword. While the tribes are certainly sovereign, so is the state of North Dakota. A majority of our elected lawmakers passed the e-tabs bill into law, and our popularly elected governor signed that bill into law.

What's more, the law seems very popular with North Dakotans generally given the aforementioned revenues.

What duty does the state of North Dakota have to protect tribal-owned businesses from competition?

None, in my mind.

I can understand the pain and frustration tribal leaders are feeling over this situation, but their casino business model was built on the back of a gambling prohibition in the surrounding jurisdictions, which was never guaranteed to persist ad infinitum.


Things change.

The tribes will need to adapt.

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Rob Port, founder of, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Listen to his Plain Talk Podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RobPort.

Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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