Bernie Shepherd, former Chief of the Wapi Muskwa Nation, is a pioneer in Canadian Tribal Gaming. He was the first to set up a tribal bricks and mortar casino twenty years ago and also the first to launch an online tribal casino in Canada and also the United States. Shepherd is dedicated to educating tribes across North America on opportunities that will create wealth and jobs within tribal lands and online gambling is certainly one of those opportunities.
The Wapi Muskwa Nation, or “White Bear First Nation” in English, is located in South East Saskatchewan in Canada and is part of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN), a political organization representing seventy four First Nations in Saskatchewan, Canada. To illustrate how things have changed, 125 plus years ago Shepherd’s tribe occupied a territory that spanned from Kansas to where White Bear First Nation is located today, back in a time when there were no borders.
Twenty years ago Shepherd opened Bear Claw on White Bear, the first bricks and mortar casino to be built on Saskatchewan tribal land, only for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) to raid it on the grounds of “criminal code violations”. The raid itself was hostile and terrifying for employees and the White Bear First Nation community, but Shepherd wasn’t about to surrender his indigenous rights to the authorities. The FSIN joined Shepherd and White Bear to fight for their rights and as a result the provincial 1995 Gaming Framework materialized and Bear Claw reopened in 1996, followed by the opening of five more land based casinos on Saskatchewan tribal land.
Eighteen years later Shepherd decided that getting involved in the online gambling world was also essential for First Nations. Shepherd began looking at online gambling and ultimately decided to move forward with launching a site on the GeoBet network, a turnkey solution designed specifically for the First Nations and Tribes in the USA.
In November of 2012 Shepherd launched NorthernBearCasino.com on the GeoBet network. Even though he lacked the blessing from the province prior to launching, Shepherd is pleased with his decision and believes its his right as part of the First Nations, just like it was his right to operate a land based casino in White Bear twenty years ago. “Things are going great, I love it!” he said.
Shepherd and his team have been sharing their success stories with tribes across North American and educating them on the whole process. “[Northern Bear Casino] gives me the opportunity now to have the conversation about iGaming and tribes. We’re excluded from the corporate tables that cover these issues, so we’ve created our own corporate tables where we talk about these things and eventually we’ll get other governments to come to the table to talk to us about iGaming.”
Its clear after listening to Shepherd and other tribal members that the goal of getting involved with the online gambling industry is about a lot more than just making money. For Shepherd, iGaming is an industry that is so important for the tribes to embrace because it will create wealth and jobs for his people, but iGaming is only one piece of the economic pie.
“iGaming is only a small portion of what we want to do economically. We’re involved in huge projects in the natural resources sector, we’re getting involved in retail industries, manufacturing industries. Its important for us to be included in all those industries so that we can eventually be equal partners with other citizens in Canada, the US and the world”.
At this moment in time the GeoBet network does not accept any players from the United States and even though Shepherd would be up for challenging the US government, his agreement with GeoBet includes respecting the current US laws. In the future, Shepherd will look to have conversations with Native Americans residing in US states that are regulating online gambling to be sure the tribes are included, ultimately creating jobs and opportunities for them as well.