Hershel Gorham remembers the struggles of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes before casinos reversed their economic fate. Growing up in Geary, Oklahoma, with a population of roughly 1300 people, he saw the financial limitations of his rural community, and the challenge for his fellow tribal members.
“If you look at the opportunities that were available to tribes prior to Indian casinos, there weren’t that many,” says Gorham. “I worked for my tribe prior to us having any casinos on our land. We had a small bingo hall back then, but it didn’t make much money.”
When the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) passed in October 1988, the fate of Gorham’s tribe, as well as his own career, changed. The IGRA established the National Indian Gaming Commission, the governing body that regulates gaming on Indian Lands and where Gorham now works as one of three commissioners.
“The gaming commission is regulatory in nature. I’m not involved in the operation of the gaming or casinos. I provide oversight to make sure casinos follow all the rules of the Indian Gaming Act and the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act,” Gorham says.
Not only is this a chance for him to work in the area of the law he loves, but to help the community that he loves, too.
“The heartbeat of my tribe and a lot of tribes is economic development,” says Gorham. “When I looked at Indian law, I wanted to go into an area where I could have the most impact. For me, that’s economic development. And the economic driver of our tribe is our casinos.”
With six casinos, the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma profitted over $40 million last year, while paying nearly $3 million in exclusivity fees to the state. With all tribes combined, Gorham said, the state of Oklahoma received nearly $130 million in exclusivity fees last year. Over the last ten years, he said that amount has reached more than $1 billion.
“Everyone benefits from gaming, whether that’s money going back to the tribe, exclusivity fees paid to the state, or all the jobs created. And not just jobs for the tribe, but also jobs in the restaurant businesses, too. People from all areas of businesses benefit directly from Indian gaming,” he says.
After watching his tribe struggle through his earlier years, Gorham says he’s thrilled to be part of the governing body that not only provides regulatory oversight for the casinos, but also serves to protect the gaming industry for future generations of his tribe.
“Once Oklahoma allowed Class 3 gaming, it opened up a floodgate of opportunities for tribes,” he says. “Now, they can control their own destiny, control their own sovereignty, and be the sovereign nation they were meant to be.”