In June of 1972, an Indian named Russell Bryan received a tax bill from Itasca County for $147.95 for taxes levied on his mobile home on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota. Bryan refused to pay the tax, arguing that state tax and regulatory laws did not apply to an Indian living on an Indian reservation. When the County and the state disagreed, Russell Bryan's legal aid attorneys took their case all the way to the United States Supreme Court. Following a remarkable argument by the late Bernie Becker, a University of Minnesota Law School alum and professor at the William Mitchell College of Law, Russell Bryan's case prevailed, winning a unanimous Supreme Court decision authored by Justice William Brennan.
The Bryan case became the cornerstone for the legal principle that states cannot regulate the activities of Indians and Indian tribes on Indian reservations without explicit authority from Congress. Soon, high stakes bingo operations began to spring up on Indian reservations in Minnesota and across the country from Florida to California. Years later, when Congress enacted legislation intended to give states a modest role in Indian gaming by requiring tribes to negotiate compacts with states before conducting gaming, Minnesota was the first state to sign tribal-state compacts with tribes.
Since then, Indian gaming has lifted many Indian communities from poverty. And even on reservations where poverty is still common, revenues from gaming has alleviated some of the worst of the suffering. Said one Indian leader: "We had tried poverty for 200 years. We decided to try something different." Indian gaming revenues nationwide now exceed $20 billion a year. The legal authority for the whole industry was established by one stubborn Minnesota Indian who challenged an illegal country tax assessment of $147.95 on his mobile home.
~Kevin Washburn, Minneapolis, MN