Margaret Simpson’s career has always been more about the journey than one particular destination. Still, Simpson’s journey unfolds against a single backdrop — the economic future of her tribe. Her fall 2020 graduation from UNLV with a master’s degree in Hospitality Administration (MHA) signaled a commitment to taking her position with the tribe’s main economic driver —The Mill Casino — to the next level. It is a heavy lift considering the major responsibility Simpson feels as a member and representative of the Coquille Nation in southwestern Oregon. But her pride as a native woman is a constant source of fuel, moving her toward the skills that will most impact her community.
Tell me about your home.
I’m from Myrtle Point, Oregon, about 30 minutes southeast of North Bend. That’s my ancestral homeland where my people have thrived since the beginning of time. We (the Coquille Tribe) lived and survived on the Coquille River, which flows into the Pacific Ocean at Bandon, Oregon. We are an assimilation tribe, meaning the majority of our people live in our ‘service-area.’ The Mill Casino Hotel and RV Park is our flagship business, which provides revenue to fund essential tribal programs such as education, health care, and elder assistance.
What made you want to pursue a graduate degree with a gaming focus?
Really, it wasn’t my intention to have a long-term career in gaming; but about a year into my previous role (as executive assistant to The Mill Casino’s general manager), I was asked to start a program for tribal development in gaming. It was an honor because I had always been a huge advocate for advancing the social and economic status of native people, but I also felt a huge sense of responsibility because I know what gaming revenues do for my community. When I realized that I had the makings of an influential leader for my people — that was a powerful moment in my life. I also knew that I needed to pursue an advanced degree in hospitality and gaming.
About the UNLV Tribal Gaming ProgramThe UNLV Harrah College of Hospitality is working on a needs analysis to launch a new concentration in tribal gaming operations — a specialized area of study under the college’s Hospitality Management bachelor’s degree. The new program was made possible by a $6 million gift from the California-based San Manuel Band of Mission Indians. (An additional $3 million was given to the UNLV Boyd School of Law to fund a program in tribal law.) In addition to the degree program, the college will offer certificates in tribal gaming as well as workshops.
Why did you choose the online MHA program at UNLV?
UNLV’s reputation speaks for itself. Also, my mentor, Terri Porcaro, had witnessed success from UNLV and strongly encouraged me to attend. Before I committed to the program, we researched the program content to make sure it was the right fit for my career and educational goals. And it did not disappoint!
Plus, I was already accustomed to the online format, because I received my undergrad online. I have a husband and two kids at home, so I realized success through prioritizing. Luckily, I have an amazing support group. Nobody gets anywhere alone.
Tell me more about your background.
My career choices have been varied: I worked in the casino as a teenager, went on to own my own business, and worked for tribal government in health care and social services. I got my bachelor’s at Eastern Oregon University in 2016 majoring in anthropology/sociology with an emphasis in public administration. It was a journey of self-discovery. I wanted to explore history to see how academics tell the story of native people. I also wanted to learn how to leverage government on issues surrounding tribal sovereignty.
How does your perspective as a native woman impact your role now as assistant general of the Mill Casino?
That’s really two separate questions: In terms of women in gaming, I really look at my mentor, Terri Porcaro, who was one of the first female dealers on the Las Vegas Strip. Coming up through the ranks in a man’s world, women like her paved that really difficult path for women like me. They bring compassion and empathy to leadership positions, which are essential in gaming and hospitality. Employees are the ambassadors who create the experience that customers’ desire.
Native Americans working in tribal gaming bring something really unique to the table. They are able to incorporate their tribe’s mission, vision, and core values into their business management model. We have a level of vested interest that every business owner desires. As a tribal member, the hard work comes more naturally because we play the long-term game. I’m working to achieve goals for the future generations of my people — to secure a bright future for my kids and my grandkids.
The Harrah College of Hospitality soon will be launching a concentration in tribal operations. How do you think this program can benefit both tribal people and the industry as whole?
In the gaming industry, there’s an advantage to having a diverse team. For tribal people, it is important to learn about other properties because no two properties are the same. Operating a casino in a rural community is starkly different than operatiting a casino on the Las Vegas Strip. The program will need to deliver a broad understanding of gaming as well as the opportunity to network with both aspiring and established professionals.
For those moving from commercial gaming to tribal gaming, there is a major learning curve. I assist new-hire employees transitioning from commercial gaming to tribal gaming, and there are significant differences, including a totally different regulatory and political structure. So, courses that delve into tribal gaming history and regulatory structure will be essential. New hires coming from outside the tribe also have to embrace a harsh history of genocide. UNLV’s program would benefit its participants by having a native history course to support the opening of minds.
Do you see Native Americans taking on greater leadership roles in tribal casinos?
As tribes build their gaming operation competencies, I’m confident that we will see a greater presence of Native Americans in top gaming leadership positions. I believe tribes will continue to put a concerted effort in advancing the social and economic prosperity of their people and employment and education is the foundation of nation building.
Where do you see yourself in the future in terms of your career?
I will continue to grow and develop as the gaming industry evolves to ensure that I am always a relevant, engaged, and influential leader for tribal gaming. One day I’d like to contribute in the capacity of general manager or CEO of a gaming enterprise. Wherever opportunity takes me, my passion for enhancing the health and prosperity for Native people will be at the forefront of my career choices.