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sub-gaming3Native American tribes fought long and hard for the passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), which ultimately became a federal law in 1988. It gave tribes the right to operate gaming facilities under a jurisdictional framework via the National Indian Gaming Commission and oversight by the US Department of the Interior. While the law is an imperfect one and has seen numerous challenges regarding tribal decisions per economic needs, it remains the predominant law regarding reservation-based gaming.

IGRA does not explicitly address internet gambling, as there was no hint that online gaming would become an issue in the 1980s. In recent years, however, it has become an issue. And the Santa Ysabel Band of Diegueno Indians, also known as the Iipay Nation of California, decided to use IGRA in order to operate real-money online bingo and poker.

A Bold Move Started It All

In the summer of 2004, Santa Ysabel launched a website called PrivateTable. It was established to operate real-money online poker for residents within the state of California. The site appeared on the internet gaming landscape and announced that it was using its sovereign right under IGRA to conduct Class II gaming from the tribe’s reservation. Class II traditionally pertained to bingo but also included non-banked card games, ones that are played against other players instead of the house. Santa Ysabel interpreted that to include poker.

Months later, as the site barely got off the ground for real-money gaming along with its Desert Rose Bingo site, California stepped in to stop the endeavor. The state’s attorney general filed and received a temporary restraining order against Santa Ysabel, which forced the site to remove all gaming requiring financial transactions. From there, the legal battles began.

Ultimately, the case continued to the US District Court in California, and the battles resulted in that court issuing a ruling this month. The decision stated that all associated with the Santa Ysabel interactive gaming project violated the 2006 Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) by launching the site. The California injunction against the site became permanent.

As Flushdraw reported, the judgement did note that Santa Ysabel was correct in its argument that online bingo was categorized as Class II gaming under IGRA, but the UIGEA trumped it all. In essence, the tribe’s actions of launching an online poker site broke its compact with California, and it is forbidden to operate going forward. Indian gaming can only be offered on tribal land, not extended to other residents of California who want to gamble from their homes.

Tribal Frustration

The Santa Ysabel fight for online gaming has been indicative of the larger struggles between California tribal nations and the state government for online gaming rights. A Santa Ysabel spokesperson was critical of the state government’s actions when the fight first began, saying that any online poker legislation that was debated was largely in favor of the state and the richest of the tribal nations and offered no benefits for the rest of the tribes in California.

Groups of tribes have banded together to influence the online poker bills that have been debated over the past few years, but never as intensely as in 2016. Some tribes have partnered with PokerStars, while others grouped together to oppose the state allowing a company like PokerStars to potentially dominate the online poker market and leave little for tribes not affiliated with the site. The persistence of the opposing tribes helped derail the 2016 efforts to pass legislation, and the standoff between the factions is already threatening to prevent any advancement in the coming year.

Now that IGRA is not transferrable to online poker for tribal sovereignty, it is likely to create even more animosity going forward. Native Americans have little to protect them from larger entities honing in on their revenue streams, though their voices prove to be powerful enough to keep them at bay.

With more than 100 tribes recognized by the government in California alone and many more applying for recognition, they will undoubtedly stand strong in order to insist on a seat at the online poker table.

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Jennifer Newell

Jennifer has been a freelance writer in the poker industry for a decade. She left a full-time job with the World Poker Tour to tell the stories of poker. She now lives in St. Louis, writes about poker while pursuing other varied interests, and speaks her mind on Twitter… a lot.