Photo courtesy D.King of Images
Ernest Stevens Jr. addresses the American Gaming Association (AGA) during his 2014 AGA Hall of Fame induction in Las Vegas, Nev. One of only four Native Americans in the AGA Hall of Fame, Stevens was recently elected to a record 10th term as chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA).
For the past 19 years Oneida Nation citizen Ernest Stevens Jr. has dedicated his life to assisting Native Nations across Turtle Island achieve economic development and expansion by serving as chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA). Stevens was recently elected to his 10th two-year term in the role, making him the longest tenured chairman in NIGA history.
Prior to his nearly two-decade run with NIGA, Stevens gained political experience while serving on the Oneida Business Committee from 1993-1999 and the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) from 1995-2001. But it was the influences of several well-respected Oneida citizens in his younger years that set him on the path to a life of serving all Native people. “I really chose to follow people like my father (Ernest Stevens Sr.) and Loretta Metoxen,” Stevens said. “And my uncle Purcy (Powless) was probably one of the most powerfully influential people in my career outside my immediate family…and, of course, my wife (Cheryl Stevens) is obviously the most powerful.”
Founded in 1985, NIGA is an inter-tribal association of Native Nations working to preserve and protect tribal sovereignty and the ability of tribes to attain economic self-sufficiency through gaming and other forms of economic development. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., NIGA also advocates on behalf of Native Nations with Congress, the White House, and other federal agencies. In addition to serving as chairman, Stevens also acts as the national spokesperson for the organization.
It was Purcell Powless, who served as Oneida Nation Chairman for more than two decades, who planted the NIGA seeds that eventually took hold in Stevens’ life. “Purcy was the first elected vice chairman of NIGA and he really taught me a lot,” Stevens said. “We were built out of an era that included gaming, bingo, and court cases. There were a lot of concerns out there that once we got into gaming the potential for mob influence and organized crime would become a problem. NIGA was created in that era so they could get out in front of those concerns and has been highly successful in doing so. NIGA doesn’t take credit for this success, we look back on those leaders who created this.
“The fact that we don’t have any significant documented cases of influenced organized crime, or cheats, or scams over 30-plus years of gaming is not a reflection of NIGA but of the tribes,” Stevens said. “NIGA is doing what those leaders set us out to do which is to get out in front of those issues. I’m not saying the cheats and scammers haven’t visited us, but our technology, gaming commissions, police, and surveillance have been out front and if those people got any traction it sure wasn’t for long.”
NIGA is a member driven organization, Stevens said. “Not every single tribe (that has gaming) is a NIGA member,” Stevens said. “However, when and if those Nations need us, it doesn’t matter, we’re representing gaming and we’ll do what we need to do to protect our industry. My uncle used to tell me that we take care of our community. We want our gaming, bingo, operations, and economic development endeavors to be the best. As a result, I work for tribes across this country and therefore I’m at their beck and call.”
Economic development programs and ideas for Tribal Nations are fully supported by NIGA. “These different kinds of programs are showcased by groups like Native American Tourism of Wisconsin (NATOW) which we recently attended,” Stevens said. “NATOW is a significant tribal influence that focuses on tourism in Wisconsin which is another economic driver. We are doing for our Indian people what we’ve always done for our gaming industry overall. My friend Smokey Robinson has always thanked our Indian Gaming industry with keeping Motown alive.
“When we were first getting into this industry we weren’t in competition with other Native tribes,” Stevens said. “We help everybody, and we don’t get in the way of anybody. Everybody has the right to gaming because we’re governments and we were governments long before there was a United States government. Indian economic development has existed since time immemorial and today is no different. My uncle Purcy used to always say we have to make our community the most efficient with the most opportunities available to raise and provide for our families.”
Diplomacy and bi-partisan politics are key components to how NIGA operates. “We do things on a non-partisan basis and work both sides of the aisle,” Stevens said. “We attend the big DNC and RNC conventions and I’m asked why I attend the RNC. Historically, and now, some of the most dependable and prolific leaders in the United States Senate and Congress are Republicans. My father and uncle Purcy taught me to work both sides of the aisle. It’s very important that we strive for bi-partisanship and work with all the leaders. One of our most important jobs is to educate those who either have no experience with tribal sovereignty, or governance, or are against us.”
Stevens says childhood memories of wanting to be the boxing heavyweight champion of the world, as well as the best basketball player, trigger reminders of why he is so passionate about tribal economic development and gaming. “I was a very active kid and was constantly moving around,” Stevens said. “As bingo started happening in the Civic Center gym we could never get in there because the tables were always set up for bingo. I would get so frustrated that I would go in there and take all those chairs down because I wanted to play basketball and move around. I hated bingo at the time.
“I was all of maybe fifteen years old and Sandra Ninham, who ran the Civic Center along with Alma Webster, were always trying to keep me in line,” Stevens said. “Sandra would later become one of the most important colleagues of mine in my entire career, but back then I think she was at wits end with me because I would keep messing with the tables.
“One day, instead of calling uncle Purcy, Sandra sat me down and pointed at the lights in the ceiling and asked me, ‘Don’t you understand that if we don’t play bingo we can’t pay the light bill? Those lights on the diamond where you play baseball? If we don’t pay the bill we can’t turn them on,’” Stevens said. “’Those uniforms you wear, the caps you wear, the bats you use, they are all possible because of these nice people playing bingo.’
“Well, I liked my Oneida jersey and riding around in our Oneida Boys Club van and I realized I was biting the hand that was feeding us,” Stevens said. “Back then I didn’t look too favorably on those people who played bingo. Now, as we participate in a multi-billion-dollar industry, I love all those people who played bingo. Sandy and Alma had to break that down to me as a teenager to help me figure that out. It was a real lesson for me. They were also two very important mentors in my life.”
Other women have also played major roles in Stevens’ life, and those early positive relationships are evident in the way he carries himself today. “My mother Marjorie always told me I had to be a statesman and I’ve always tried to listen to her,” Stevens said. “My grandmothers Maria Hinton and Margaret Powless were so polite and into etiquette. Having them in my life taught me basic foundations of how to be a gentleman. I’ve also learned to be a gentleman from my wife of 40 years, Cheryl, my daughters, and even my granddaughters. The female influences in my life have been very powerful.”
With Stevens at the helm, NIGA has now been involved with women’s social issues for several years. “We continue to showcase women’s roles in leadership,” Stevens said. “Women have always played a significant role in Oneida and always will. So NIGA has participated in ‘Women in Leadership’ and ‘Women Warriors’ panels with all female leadership.”
Positive neighboring municipality relations is something Stevens is also a proponent of, and he wants to see them become even stronger. “Anybody who lets those forward steps we’ve taken (across the years) slide backwards is on them,” Stevens said. “Indian folks are ready to move forward and we’ve proven that we’re not going to stop and fight with angry people. We’re going to stay on the high road and keep moving forward. Even some of the more conservative surrounding communities believe in us, like us, and work for us. The vocal ones who want to fight are a small minority, and we don’t have time for any of that. We can’t afford to let a few angry people take us down that road. We have to keep doing what’s best for our community and for the most part our neighbors understand that.
“NIGA is primarily a gaming advocacy non-profit organization,” Stevens said. “But we are also here to protect tribal sovereignty and foster economic development to improve the lives of our tribal citizens. The fact that I’m sitting here in my 19th year in this job means nothing more than we still have work to do and I’ll continue to follow in the footsteps of my father, my uncle, and the previous leaders here in Oneida,” Stevens said. “They’re the ones who set the tone for this to protect our industry.”