The off-reservation debate rages on

Nov 15, 2005 3:12 AM

(Part 1 of a two-part article)

Among all the issues facing Indian gaming country today, there is perhaps no more hotly-debated a topic than that of off-reservation gaming. The practice of tribes proposing and building casinos on land that is not on their own reservation has come to be known as "reservation shopping," and it continues to feed the rift between tribal leaders and the government, and between the tribes themselves.

In a long line of attempts from Washington to re-write portions of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, Rep. Richard Pombo (R-California), the chairman of the House Resources Committee, recently released the latest draft of a new off-reservation bill. The bill prompted a hearing last week between representatives in Washington and tribal leaders. The bill proposes a number of changes to Section 20 of IGRA, setting the stage for even more restrictions on Indian gaming nationwide.

First, the bill would bar tribes from moving across state lines to build off-reservation casinos. In other words, "play on your own turf." The bill also requires the Interior Department to determine that an off-reservation casino is in the "best interests" of the tribe and the surrounding community (because the federal government knows what’s best for our beloved tribes.)

Finally, the bill requires the additional approval of the state governor, the state legislature, the local community and nearby tribes. If you’ve ever tried to get even a small room full of people to agree on one thing, you can see where this is headed.

Adding layers of approval only complicates an already cumbersome process.

Before an off-reservation casino proposal can even get off the ground, tribes must acquire land that is put into trust — which requires Interior Department approval. Land-into-trust has been established, historically, as a contract between tribal governments and the federal government. When it comes to gaming, tribal leaders are already frustrated by the fact that they are required to negotiate with the states as well, much less local communities.

Deron Marquez, Chairman of the San Manual Band of Mission Indians, told those at the hearing that requiring local approval on land decisions "would be a shift in federal Indian law and policy, giving local communities unprecedented intrusion into the trust relationship between the United States and the tribes."

At the hearing, Pombo claimed the bill would not give local communities veto authority. But Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wisconsin) argued that the bill adds layers of approval beyond what is necessary, creating the potential for a "veto" at every level. And local input is already considered when the Interior Department looks at land-into-trust applications.

Meanwhile state, county and local officials argue they need to be granted a greater level of input. But their influence is already widespread — from Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire’s recent rejection of the Spokane tribe’s casino proposal to the residents of Yuba County, California, who just last week voted to reject an off-reservation casino for the Enterprise Rancheria.

And local voters may, in turn, be influenced by anti-gaming groups, who declaim the evils of gambling and the negative impact it has on communities.

Speaking at a G2E panel discussion in September, Marquez noted that bringing in more levels of government approval have already, in some cases, made it impossible to move forward. "We don’t need more bureaucracy," he said. "We need to cut out the states and work government-to-government."

As if the issues between tribes and governments aren’t enough, the debate has turned tribe against tribe as well. In next week’s column, I’ll explore this issue, along with some of the realities of the off-reservation debate.