The (Potential) Legal History of Indian Gaming

Indian gaming—casinos owned, operated, and regulated by Indian tribes—has been a transformative force for many Indigenous nations over the past few decades. The conventional narrative is that Indian gaming began when the Seminole Tribe of Florida opened a bingo hall in 1979, other tribes began operating bingo, litigation ensued across the continent, and the U.S. Supreme Court recognized tribes’ rights to operate casinos on their reservations in 1987, in California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians. Congress then passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988, ushering in the modern Indian gaming era.

This Article provides a heretofore-untold account of the early Indian gaming jurisprudence and related developments. Judges in the earliest Indian gaming cases, which have gone unnoticed, ruled against tribes. Then a series of cases involving the applicability of state law to mobile homes and cigarette and fireworks sales on Indian reservations produced a test under which states could exercise jurisdiction on reservations over activities they prohibit off-reservation but lack jurisdiction over activities they do not prohibit but only regulate. The Supreme Court used this test in Cabazon to hold that state laws did not apply to tribes’ bingo halls and cardrooms.

This Article details the development of the legal doctrine around Indian gaming and how the people involved—legal services attorneys working with legal scholars at the behest and on behalf of Indigenous peoples asserting their sovereignty against state pushback—changed the course of the jurisprudence, providing the framework that yielded the result in Cabazon and Indian gaming as it exists today.