Slot machines, like most kinds of gambling, aren’t legal in Alaska. But in the Prince of Wales Island community of Klawock, the local tribe is now running more than 20 machines that look an awful lot like the kind of slots you might find on the floor of a Las Vegas casino. And it’s all perfectly legal.
Rhonda Ren drove from Craig to Klawock two days in a row to play the machines at the Klawock Casino.
“I had lots of luck yesterday,” Ren said while sitting in front of a machine. “I did great.”
Nearby, Robert Baza was coming away from his machine with $300. He had heard that the Klawock Cooperative Association opened the casino early last month, and wanted to try it out.
“Oh, it’s pretty good,” he said. “It’s paid off.”
Gaming isn’t new to Klawock — before COVID-19 came to the island, the tribe hosted regular bingo games and pull tabs. But now, they’ve added more than 20 bingo machines to the casino, which shares space with the tribe’s mini-mart and smoke shop in the heart of town.
The machines look nearly identical to slot machines. But technically, they’re electronic bingo machines. And in most places in Alaska, they’re illegal under state law — even under an exception that allows nonprofits to run raffles and bingo games.
But here in Klawock, there’s a twist. The casino sits on land held by the federal government in a trust. It predates the landmark Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
Lloyd Miller is an attorney with the firm Sonosky Chambers based in Anchorage.
“I mean, this is land held in trust for the benefit of the tribe,” Miller explained.
The tribe’s operation is legal under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. The law provides a framework for what kinds of gaming is legal in areas defined as “Indian Country.”
Miller said that’s what makes it different from a recent case with some striking similarities. In 2018, the Native Village of Eklutna tried to open a similar slot-like electronic bingo hall in Chugiak. But they were shot down by state authorities and a federal court.
Miller’s firm was involved in that case.
It’s a little complicated, but Miller said it all comes down to land. The key problem? Eklutna wanted to open the casino on a Native allotment — land that belonged to tribal members, not the tribe itself.
“And when you’re talking about allotment, instead of trust land use, you then get into a secondary question … that asks whether the tribe has jurisdiction — territorial jurisdiction — over the allotment,” he said.
And to qualify, the land needs to be under full jurisdiction of the tribe.
“It was an allotment awarded to individuals, a former chief, I mean, this goes way back in time. … It was not a parcel of land taken into trust for the tribe for the benefit of the tribe and held in trust for the benefit of the tribe,” Miller explained. “That’s a big difference.”
But Klawock does have jurisdiction over the casino parcel. The tribe also has the appropriate class II license from the National Indian Gaming Commission to go with it.
A class II license covers things like pull tabs and bingo, including the slot-style electronic machines. It’s a step behind a class three III license that would allow for Vegas-style games with big jackpots. Class II licenses do come with conditions — if a tribe wants to have pull tabs, they have to host regular bingo games. The machines in the Klawock Casino count as bingo, according to NIGC.
That’s why, equipped with the right kind of land and the right kind of license, Klawock’s casino is in business. Miller said there are other small parcels of trust land like Klawock’s — like in Angoon.
Back at the casino, tribal administrator Lawrence Armour says revenue from the casino helps the federally recognized tribe support its members and the community.
“(It’s) just starting another enterprise,” Armour said. “I mean, this, the smoke shop is what we pay a lot of our tribal employee salaries with if they’re not covered by a grant. And we just need another revenue source. So it was just one of the ideas that we started discussing. And the opportunity kind of fell in our laps.”
Armour said he’s seen Klawock residents come to test their luck, but also plenty of unfamiliar faces, too.
Klawock’s casino is the only one on Prince of Wales Island. But Armour said that may not be for long.
“I think there are some tribes that were looking into it,” he said. “So we (Klawock Cooperative Association) were really trying to keep it under wraps, as far as progress and who our contacts were — to try to get this thing off and beat them to the punch, basically.”
Armour said business has been steady. He said he thinks the machines will usher in a new interest in tribal gaming — and even push out old standbys like pull tabs.
Raegan Miller is a Report for America corps member for KRBD. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one. Please consider making a tax-deductible contribution at KRBD.org/donate.