Tribal gaming is a hugely significant part of the overall gaming landscape in the United States. Tribal casinos in particular are an important part of the US gaming industry.
Native Americans’ influence on the industry dates back to the passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 (IGRA). That was the federal law authorizing Native American tribes to build and operate casinos on their reservations. Over the decades since the IGRA became law, tribal gaming has grown into a massive revenue-producing industry.
In fact, over recent years tribal gaming has generated close to 45 percent of all gaming revenue in the United States, and that percentage has been increasing. Some predict tribal gaming revenue will exceed commercial gaming revenue within the next decade.
The IGRA requires the establishment of tribal-state gaming compacts before tribes can offer most types of gaming, including Vegas-style casino games.
The IGRA also requires tribes be federally recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs before they can negotiate compacts to provide gaming. The US Department of Interior has to approve the compacts as well. Additionally, the IGRA created a federal agency called the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) that regulates all tribal gaming in the US.
At the start of 2020, there were 574 federally recognized tribes in the United States. A little under half of those tribes operate casinos, but many that do operate multiple properties. At present there are more than 500 tribal casinos of varying types in the US.
Here is an overview of tribal gaming in the US, including information about:
- where tribal casinos are located
- the kinds of games tribal casinos offer
- the largest tribal casinos in the United States
- revenue produced by tribal gaming
- the IGRA and other issues related to the legality of tribal gaming
States with tribal casinos
In the United States, tribal casinos currently operate in 29 of 50 states.
States with gaming tribes and tribal casinos
The following table lists which states have tribal gaming, with the number of tribes and casinos noted. Data comes from the NIGC and reflects the tribal gaming landscape as of the start of 2020.
The totals include all casino types — that is, Class II only, Class III only, and Class II & III. (See below for an explanation of the tribal casino classification system.) The totals also include smaller establishments (e.g., convenience stores, truck stops) that classify themselves as casinos even if they don’t necessarily resemble traditional casinos.
Also worth noting — in a few cases, tribes headquartered in one state operate casinos in a different state where they own land.
|State||Gaming Tribes||Tribal Casinos|
*states with Class II casinos only
States with the largest tribal gaming industry
The NIGC reports gross gaming revenue for tribal casinos by region, not by state. Each year tribal casinos in the Sacramento region (comprising California and Northern Nevada) boast the highest revenues.
State-specific revenue figures for tribal casinos tend to be less accessible. However, the American Gaming Association has been able to share tribal casino revenue totals from most states from 2016. These totals indicate where the tribal gaming industry continues to be the largest, with California and Oklahoma leading the way in terms of tribal casino gross gaming revenue.
|State||Tribal Casinos' Gross Gaming Revenue (2016)|
|New York||$925.8 million|
|New Mexico||$861.6 million|
How many tribal casinos are there?
According to the NIGC, there were 524 tribal casinos operating in 29 states at the start of 2020.
In other words, there are actually more tribal casinos in the United States than there are commercial casinos. The AGA reports that at the start of 2020 there were 465 commercial casinos operating in 25 states. That total includes land-based casinos, riverboat casinos, and racinos.
What can you bet on at tribal casinos?
Just like in commercial casinos, slots represent the most popular form of gaming in tribal casinos. All tribes that negotiate compacts with states to offer Class III gaming do so primarily to offer slots.
Tribal casinos that are able to offer Class III games also feature a variety of table games such as roulette, craps, and blackjack. They can also spread poker games, and indeed some feature especially large and popular live poker rooms.
Tribal casinos that only offer Class II games cannot offer the Vegas-style casino games. They can, however, offer live poker, since poker is a non-banked card game. That said, while some Class III tribal casinos have quite large poker rooms, the Class II tribal casinos’ poker rooms are usually only a handful of tables with low-limit games.
Tribal gaming’s history largely began with bingo halls, and bingo remains a staple of tribal casinos today. Bingo is among the games allowed at Class II tribal casinos. Electronic bingo games that very much resemble slots are especially popular in these casinos. (See “Tribal vs. commercial casinos: Available games” below.)
Sports betting and sportsbooks
The rapid growth of sports betting in the United States starting in mid-2018 has been well documented by the appearance of many new retail sportsbooks in commercial casinos across the country. Tribal casinos have been less quick to embrace sports betting, however, in part because of the complicated nature of tribal-state gaming compacts.
Outside of Nevada, the Golden Moon Hotel and Casino at the Pearl River Resort in Choctaw, Mississippi was the first tribal casino to open a sportsbook in August 2018. However, only a few other tribal casinos have followed suit. One reason they have not is because only a few states that have tribal casinos also have legalized US sports betting.
In New Mexico, the Santa Ana Casino launched a sportsbook in October 2018 even though sports betting had not been legalized in the state. The Pueblo of Santa Ana Tribe cited its Class III gaming compact with the state as allowing them to offer sports betting. A few other New Mexico tribes subsequently launched retail sportsbooks in their casinos as well.
Meanwhile, Washington state passed a new sports betting law in March 2020 that allowed only the state’s tribes to open sportsbooks. However opponents to the new law have posed legal challenges, which coupled with the need for regulations and updated compacts will likely delay the launch of tribal-run sportsbooks there.
Some tribes have launched free-to-play social gaming sites. But tribes have been largely tentative about offering full-fledged online casinos.
Tribal-state gaming compacts require that the tribes only offer games that are already legal in the state. As it happens, among the first states to legalize online gambling — Delaware, New Jersey, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia — none of them also have tribes with current gaming compacts.
Michigan is a state with a number of gaming tribes and tribal casinos. Michigan became the sixth state to legalize online gambling at the end of 2019, and so could be a state where tribes will offer online casino and sports betting..
The biggest tribal casinos in the United States
When it comes to sheer size, the largest casinos in the United States are all tribal casinos.
In fact, the WinStar World Casino and Resort in Thackerville, Oklahoma near the Oklahoma-Texas border is not only the country’s largest casino, some say it is the largest casino in the world.
It depends in part how one measures the gaming space. With nine different gaming plazas, the WinStar describes itself as having nearly 400,000 square feet of gaming space. That said, some put the total even higher at 500,000 or even more than 600,000 sq. ft., which would exceed even the massive Venetian Macao in Macau.
Here are the five largest tribal casinos in terms of gaming space, with the number of slots also noted. All have a large number of table games, as well, with big poker rooms, too. Foxwoods Resorts Casino has one of the largest poker rooms in the country, only exceeded by the rooms at the Commerce Casino and Bicycle Casino in California.
|Casino||Tribe||Location||Gaming Space (Square Feet)||Slots|
|WinStar World Casino and Resort||Chickasaw Nation, Oklahoma||Thackerville, OK||400,000||8,500|
|Mohegan Sun||Mohegan Tribe of Indians of Connecticut||Uncasville, CT||364,000||6,500|
|Foxwoods Resort Casino||Mashantucket Pequot Indian Tribe||Mashantucket, CT||344,000||5,500|
|Thunder Valley Casino Resort||United Auburn Indian Community of the Auburn Rancheria||Lincoln, CA||250,000||3,400|
|Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Tampa||Seminole Tribe of Florida||Tampa, FL||245,000||5,000|
Other tribal casinos that are among the largest in the country include the San Manuel Casino in Highland, CA (220,000 sq. ft. gaming space), the Choctaw Casino Resort in Durant, OK (210,000 sq. ft.), and the Pechanga Resort & Casino in Temecula, CA (188,000 sq. ft.).
How much money do tribal casinos make?
As noted above, tribal casinos’ gross gaming revenue is now starting to approach revenue totals for commercial casinos in the US.
From 1995 to 2000, tribal casinos’ revenue doubled from $5.4 billion to $10.9 billion. Then during the 2000s revenue more than doubled again, reaching $26.5 billion in 2009. Revenue steadily increased every single year of the 2010s, peaking at $35 billion in 2019.
Where does tribal casinos’ gaming revenue go?
The IGRA requires tribes to use gaming revenue for certain specific purposes, including:
- funding the operations of tribal government and programs
- providing for the welfare of the tribe and its members
- promoting economic development within the tribe
- donating to charitable organizations
- helping local government agencies fund operations
In a report on the economic and fiscal impact of tribal gaming, the American Gaming Association highlighted just how big the tribal gaming industry really is. Focusing on state-by-state data from 2016, the AGA found in that year tribal casinos responsible for:
- adding $105 billion to the states’ economies
- supporting 676,000 jobs
- providing $36.2 billion in wages for employees
- generating $15.2 billion in taxes and revenue share payments to federal, state, and local governments
Tribal casinos and the law
The story of tribal casinos in the US intersects with the larger history of Native Americans seeking sovereignty. Indeed, current federal law regarding tribal casinos directly resulted from just such a legal dispute.
How did tribes end up being able to have casinos?
In 1976 the United States Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision in a case concerning Native American tribal sovereignty. The case, Bryan v. Itasca County, was brought by a member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe after he received a tax bill on his mobile home located on the tribe’s reservation.
After lower courts’ rulings were appealed, the Supreme Court ultimately ruled unanimously that the state did not have authority to impose taxes on activities occurring on tribe-owned lands. Subsequent court decisions clarified that the state could not impose taxes or impose restrictions on behavior on tribal lands that were otherwise permitted in the state.
Soon after the ruling, tribes in various parts of the country began to operate gaming facilities, with bingo halls (some very large in scale) the most popular variety. One built by the Seminole Tribe of Florida led to another court case and a favorable ruling for the tribe.
A similar situation arose in California involving the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians and its gambling halls. The tribe won its court case as well, although when the Supreme Court reviewed the case it determined that Native American gaming needed to be regulated by the federal government in a manner that ensured tribal sovereignty.
From that decision came federal legislation to enable such a regulatory framework be put into place. Senators Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and John McCain of Arizona helped draft the new bill, while Representative Mo Udall of Arizona sponsored similar legislation on the House side. Both chambers passed S.555 in September 1988. In the Senate, the bill passed unanimously by a voice vote, and the House approved it by a wide margin (323-84).
The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA)
President Ronald Reagan signed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act into federal law on October 17, 1988. By providing a legal regulatory framework for tribal gaming, the IGRA enables tribes to create revenue via gaming while also protecting them from criminal influences.
As noted above, the IGRA created a new federal regulatory agency within the Department of Interior called the NIGC. The NIGC regulates all tribal gaming in the United States. It works in cooperation with both the Dept. of Interior and the US Dept. of Justice.
The law also created three distinct classes of tribal gaming:
Class I gaming refers to traditional gaming occurring during ceremonies and social gaming for small prizes. Tribes can offer Class I games without any special oversight or licensing.
Class II gaming covers games of chance like bingo, keno, pull tabs, and non-banked card games. Tribes wishing to offer Class II games must regulate their games according to NIGC oversight. The IGRA does not require tribes to enter into tribal-state compacts in order to offer Class II games. That said, tribes cannot offer Class II games if state law prohibits them.
Class III gaming covers all of the gambling games that are not Class I or Class II, including casino-style gambling games like slots, roulette, blackjack, and craps. To operate Class III games, tribes must enter into tribal-state compacts. Then the federal government has to approve the compact as well before the tribes can offer the games.
State laws and tribal-state compacts
Every gaming compact between a tribe and state is different. That said, negotiations always begin according to terms set forth by the IGRA and within the parameters of the state’s existing gambling law.
Many states that have compacts with tribes have them with multiple tribes. In some cases, the state will negotiate compacts with many different tribes at once. Oklahoma is an example, where 35 different tribes have compacts with the state.
A tribe need not negotiate a separate compact for each casino it operates in the state. For example, the Seminole Tribe of Florida has one gaming compact with the state of Florida that allows the tribe to operate six different casinos on the tribe’s land. However the compact usually contains specific information regarding each property the tribe operates.
Compacts can be time-bound, lasting only for a certain period such as five or ten years at which point they must be renegotiated and renewed. Alternatively, compacts can be made in perpetuity and thus have no end date.
Tribal-state compacts can also involve tribes paying exclusivity fees to the state. Such an arrangement gives the tribes exclusive rights to operate casinos in the state. In some cases these exclusivity fees can pertain only to particular games.
Tribal-state gaming compacts usually include minimum age requirements, and these differ from state to state. Often a casino having a liquor license determines the age requirement. If the casino serves alcohol, the minimum age is typically 21. Other tribal casinos set the minimum age at 18 or 19.
Once a tribal-state compact is signed, it is not uncommon for amendments to be subsequently added. Such amendments often cover additional games the tribal casino wants to offer. They can also reset betting limits, adjust the number of slots or tables permitted, or change other particulars.
How are tribal casinos different from commercial casinos?
Tribal vs. commercial casinos: Location
As outlined above, tribal casinos are located on tribe-owned lands. In some cases, tribal ownership of these lands extends back uninterrupted for hundreds of years. Such lands are traditionally referred to as reservations. In others, the lands were taken by the federal government and subsequently given back via the land into trust process that enables tribes to regain lands once belonging to ancestors.
Land into trust (a.k.a. “land in trust” or “trust land”) refers to land acquired by the Department of the Interior who holds it on the tribe’s behalf. Importantly, such land is available for the tribes to use and is not subject to local or state governments.
Legally speaking, trust land and reservation land have the same standing. When it comes to gaming and building casinos, both are subject to the IGRA and the guidelines outlined above.
By contrast, commercial casinos are built in locations authorized by state and local legislation. Often voters living in the state or local area must vote to approve the casinos, although not always. The location of such casinos is therefore subject to many restrictions, both legal and regulatory.
Tribal vs. commercial casinos: Size
The size of tribal casinos and resorts is not typically restricted in the same way limits are placed on the size of commercial casinos. In the case of tribal casinos with Class III gaming, the tribal-state compacts generally include such parameters. For example, such compacts often designate a maximum number of slot machines a tribe can include within a single property.
State laws regarding the size of casinos do not directly apply to tribal casinos located within the state. Such laws may well influence the negotiation of tribal-state compacts, however.
Meanwhile commercial casinos come in a variety of sizes, too, as determined by local and state laws and regulatory oversight. Often the size and population of the nearest city determine the commercial casinos’ size.
Tribal vs. commercial casinos: Regulation
In most cases, state gambling commissions regulate commercial casinos. Once legislators pass laws to legalize gambling in a state, these commissions create rules and enforce regulations. Such a system requires commercial casinos to obtain licenses and follow regulations in order to maintain them.
Tribal casinos are instead regulated on a federal level by the NIGC. When it comes to Class III gaming, each tribe also negotiates its own compact with the state to establish particular rules when offering the games.
Practically speaking, this means a lot more variation between casinos when it comes to odds, payouts, and other gaming particulars. It also means different rules for setting payment schedules and reporting revenue, which is why it is sometimes easier to access such information regarding commercial casinos than it is for tribal casinos.
Relatedly, tribal casinos also employ tribal police, whereas commercial casinos employ security officers. In other words, should a person try to cheat or commit a crime at a tribal casino, the tribal police can make arrests. By contrast, when crimes are committed at commercial casinos, security officers typically must call upon local law enforcement. Those guilty of criminal activity at a tribal casino are also subject to tribal law, and thus won’t enjoy the same constitutional rights they might have otherwise.
Tribal vs. commercial casinos: Available games
When it comes to tribal casinos that offer Class III gaming, the available games very much resemble those commonly found in commercial casinos. These include all the Las Vegas-style casino games like roulette, craps, blackjack, video poker, and slots. Class III slot machines employ a random number generator (RNG) and are programmed to pay back a certain percentage of the amount spent.
Tribal casinos with Class II gaming cannot offer these Vegas-style games, but only bingo, keno, and certain non-banked card games. That means poker — a game in which players play against each other and not the house — can be offered in Class II tribal casinos.
There is a variety of Class II slot machines that very much resemble traditional slots, but are in fact technically considered bingo games. Rather than use a traditional RNG, the results of spins on these “bingo slots” are determined by electronic bingo games drawing numbers shared among multiple games.
Such games often have a little bingo card in the corner that lets the player know they are Class II and not Class III games. In these games the spinning reels are essentially ornamental, a way of making what is actually a bingo game appear more like slots.