Native American gaming comprises casinos, slots, and bingo halls on tribal lands in the U.S., such as the Indian reservations.

Tribal Casinos and Native American Gaming Explained

You have probably seen or heard about tribal gaming in the United States in movies or TV shows. But what exactly does this native American gaming entail?

Tribal gaming, popularly known as Indian gaming, refers to gambling enterprises operated by Native American tribal governments on reservations or other tribal lands. These areas have tribal sovereignty as defined in the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988.

The Native American gaming industry comprises full-house casinos with slot machines and small halls that offer casino games like video poker, bingo, and lottery. How do they differ from commercial online casinos?

This article explains everything you need to know about native American gaming.

What Are Casinos on Indian Reservations?

In the United States, casinos on Indian reservations refer to all gambling enterprises owned by federally recognised Native American tribes that operate on Indian reservations or other tribal lands.

These enterprises include a range of business operations: from full-blown casino facilities with slot machine parlours, Las Vegas-style high-stakes gambling, and hotels with varying accommodation capacity to smaller facilities offering bingo, lotteries, and video poker.

Since US federal laws allow a certain level of tribal sovereignty and self-government, tribal casinos are exempted from being regulated by individual states.

Why Are There Casinos on Indian Reservations

The history of casinos on Indian reservations is closely linked to the case of Russel and Hellen Bryan, a married couple from Minnesota living on a reservation. The story began in 1972 when Itasca County notified the couple that their mobile home was subject to US$147.95 in taxes. The Bryans, both enrolled members of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, couldn’t afford to pay the tax and turned for help to a legal aid service.

Following a series of lower court rulings against their favour, in 1976, the case was brought before the Supreme Court of the United States. In a landmark case dubbed Bryan v. Itasca County, the Court ruled that a state could not tax any property on Indian land or the people living there.

In light of the Supreme Court of the United States ruling, the phenomenon of gambling on Indian reservations got off the ground. For instance, the Seminole tribe in Florida was the first to start an illegal high-stakes bingo operation in 1979.

Despite the authorities’ attempts to shut down this tourist-attracting facility, the Supreme Court of the United States once again ruled in favour of the tribe and held that the State had no right to regulate activities on Indian reservations.

However, it wasn’t until 1988 that The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) was passed by Congress, clearing all legislative hurdles for Native Americans in the United States-owned casinos.

Apart from serving as a legal framework for tribes and states to develop tribal gaming, the IGRA also laid the legislative ground to protect gaming as a means of generating revenue for Indian tribes.

Can All Native Americans in the United States Have Casinos?

The passage of the IGRA has offered ample opportunities for Native tribes to run gambling operations. Still, not all US states have tribal casinos inside their borders and not all native Americans in the United States engage in gambling. There are two reasons why there are casinos on some Indian reservations and not on others.

There Must be a Reservation

A state needs a reservation for a tribe-run gambling operation to exist. States like Illinois, Kentucky, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, and New Hampshire recognise no tribes; therefore, they have no reservation in their territory. In total, there are 15 US states with no Indian reservations.

A State Must Reach a Compact with a Native Tribe

Another reason why some states have no Indian gaming facilities is the lack of a compact agreement with a native tribe within its borders. Such is the example of Utah, South Carolina, and Alaska, all of which recognise Native American f tribes but haven’t reached a deal that would allow the tribes to run gambling operations.

It should be noted that a tribal-state compact is needed only if a tribe wishes to offer a type of gambling that is not legal in the state; in that case, it needs approval from the authorities.

A tribal-state compact is like obtaining a gambling license: you cannot start a gambling operation unless granted formal approval.

Differences Between Indian and Commercial Casinos

Across the United States, there are two typical kinds of casinos: Indian reservations and commercial casinos. Of course, the main difference between those two is the location; Indian casinos can be located only on Indian reservations, while commercial casinos, well, you can find them on virtually any other property.

But what are some other distinctions between these two types of casinos?

Legal Status

While commercial land-based casinos must adhere to all state or federal laws, their Native American-run counterparts do not. Remember the 1976 Supreme Court of the United States decision that ruled states could not regulate activities on Indian reservations or tax their residents?

The said ruling was bolstered further by a 1987 decision that held that a state could not regulate casino activities on Native American land as long as the type of gambling was already legal in the state. As a result, if a tribe wants to start a gambling operation and not pay a single penny in state or federal taxes, it needs to make sure that it sticks to legal types of gambling.

Game Variations

As a rule of thumb, if you are interested in game variety at a tribal casino, you can simply check the type of gambling that’s legal in the state you’re visiting. In most cases, reservation casinos will offer the same type of games as their commercial competitors.

As a result, Indian casinos typically offer slot machines and video poker games. In some cases, you can also enjoy video versions of table games such as blackjack, roulette, and baccarat.

In other cases, however, tribes will try to hash out a compact with the state, seeking to expand the offering. In this case, you might be lucky to enjoy a game of poker, even if the state limits the gambling activities of its residents to, say, bingo.

Video Poker Machines

We’ll need a brief history lesson to explain the difference between video poker machines found at Indian casinos and commercial casinos.

The 1988 IGRA Act established three classes of gaming.

  • Class I is defined as traditional Indian and social gaming for minimal prizes.
  • Class II covers bingo-based games of chance.
  • Class III gaming is full-scale, Las Vegas-style gambling, including slot machines, table games, poker rooms, etc.

A tribal-state compact needs to be forged for a tribal casino to offer Class III gaming. Sometimes, however, the state will refuse to allow a tribe to run Class III gaming operations, and the tribe will have to stick to Class II slot machines, which have more in common with bingo than slots as you know them.


Even if a commercial casino is located near a tribal venue, the payouts will not necessarily be the same. What’s more, different reservation casinos may feature different payouts. Sometimes, this is due to the rules of the game (different gaming classes come with different rules), or it can be decided at the casino’s discretion.

For instance, one casino may instruct its dealers to hit soft 17 in blackjack, while another may have the dealer stand on it. Paytables in video poker or slot machines may be different, too; finally, some casinos will opt for Class II machines, while others may offer Class III options with a lower payout percentage.

As more states open up to online casino gambliing, tribal casinos are seizing this opportunity and trying to find their place in the online world. Take a look at our handy post that dives deeper into the distinctions between land-based and online casinos and see what sets them apart.

Who Operates Indian Casinos?

Only recognised Native Americans in the United States can be owners of casinos on Indian reservations. But they still need someone to operate them, right?

The tribes themselves operate quite a few casinos. However, there are equally as many casinos that are run by professional casino operators. And although the casino operator takes a cut of the profits, a casino operated professionally can generate much more revenue.

For instance, professional operators with a chain of casinos can offer highly developed loyalty schemes to their members. For a tribal casino to set up such a scheme is not an easy task, but for a major operator, adding a couple of thousand new members from a tribal casino for a big operator, on the other hand, is a piece of cake.

Numerous major operators have been invited to run tribal casinos. For example, Caesars Entertainment-owned Harrah’s operates two Native American casinos in North Carolina, both owned by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

As you can see, thinking that tribal casinos are operated exclusively by Native American tribes constitutes a misconception. Pore over the most common gambling myths and misconceptions in our separate guide and check your common knowledge about casinos.

Do Casinos Have to Be on Indian Reservations?

Yes, casinos have to be on Indian reservations if owned by Native American tribes. Seeking to set up a casino business anywhere else would defeat the purpose of the autonomy held by Native American tribes over reservations.

Even though Indian casinos are limited to reservations, this notion has many upsides. One of them is the fact that they are exempted from taxes and do not fall under federal authority, giving them ample opportunity to thrive.

Concerns About Casinos in Indian Reservations

Gambling on Indian reservations has reaped huge success in the past all around the US, but believe it or not, the Indian gaming industry remains an issue that both courts and the public are discussing every day. Many states are still not satisfied with tribal-state compacts, and American Indian casinos continue to be a cause of concern for many tribe members.

Critics of Indian casinos often cite concerns about the impact of these facilities on local infrastructure and social relations. On the other hand, advocates of tribal casinos argue that the positive effects of gambling operations on Indian reservations outweigh any potential negative outcomes.

The Indian gaming industry is changing the public image of Native American people and their self-perception, but it still isn’t going anywhere.

Right now, the future of casinos on Indian reservations seems more than bright. At the beginning of 2020, there were 525 federally-recognised tribal casinos in 29 states, and that number is only going up.


As you can see, Native American tribes had gone a long way before they were finally granted sovereignty on reservations and offered an opportunity to capitalise on gambling. And despite having been granted immunity from state laws, a number of barriers still exist when it comes to starting a tribal casino, mainly if the type of gambling isn’t regulated in the state.

While they bring economic prosperity for some tribe members, numerous others have seen zero benefits from them, apart from the altered image of Native Americans in the public eye and jeopardised infrastructure and environment on Indian lands.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What is the best Indian casino?

Are you looking for tribal casinos near me for Indian gamers? The best native Indian casinos to play at include Mohegan Sun, Foxwoods Resort Casino, Peral River Resort, Hard Rock Las Vegas, Tribes Resort Casino, Mystic Lake Casino Hotel, Choctaw Casino Resort, Akwesasne Mohawk Casino and Muckleshoot Casino.

Who owns the Thunder Valley Casino Resort?

The United Auburn Indian Community who are indigenous to the Sacramento Valley, owns the Thunder Valley Casino Resort.

Does the Chickasaw Nation have a casino?

Yes, the Chickasaw Nation owns WinStar World Casino and Resort, which is located at 777 Casino Ave, Thackerville, Oklahoma 73559 (Love County). WinStar World Casino is also the biggest casino in the world, with a 34,000-square-meter floor.

Which is the Most Successful Native American casino?

Foxwoods Resort Casino is the most successful casino owned by Native Americans in the United States. The Mashantucket Pequot Tribe has operated the casino since its opening in 1992 in Ledyard, Connecticut. Foxwoods Resort Casino’s annual revenue is approximately $91.0 million.

How Many Native American casinos are there in the U.S.?

Currently, there are over 500 casinos in the U.S. owned by Native Americans in the United States. However, under half of the tribal communities operate these casinos, and those that do operate multiple gaming premises. For instance, the Osage Nation operate seven native American Gaming casinos.

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