Tribes set sights on greener pastures

Nov 22, 2005 3:28 AM

(Part 2 of a two-part article)

Last week, we examined a new off-reservation bill introduced by Rep. Richard Pombo (R-California), the chairman of the House Resources Committee. The bill proposes a number of changes to Section 20 of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, effectively adding more layers to the approval process and restricting the locations in which tribes can operate casinos.

Pombo’s bill also includes a ban on tribes moving across state lines. Currently, a number of tribes are seeking to build casinos out-of-state, claiming ancestral ties to the land. Among them, the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin is setting its sights eastward to New York. And Oklahoma has become a hotbed of activity — the Eastern Shawnee Tribe is staking claim to land in Ohio; the Delaware Nation is seeking land in Pennsylvania and Kansas; the Cheyenne and Arapaho are looking at Denver, and the Seneca and Cayuga have their eyes on the Catskills of New York.

As the $20 billion Indian gaming industry expands, tribes are looking for more lucrative sites for casino development. Since the majority of reservation lands were established in areas without much economic potential, tribes are forced to look off-reservation — in urban areas, on highly traveled highways, or in another tribe’s backyard.

The controversy has turned tribe against tribe. In California, the Big Sandy Band of Mono Indians and the Table Mountain Rancheria are both laying claim to a 40-acre parcel in Fresno County.

And many tribes can afford to hire help —the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana hired lobbyist Jack Abramoff to shut down a casino owned by the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas, with serious repercussions for the Tigua.

Developers and proponents say off-reservation gaming is about market protection. But tribal leaders such as Deron Marquez, chairman of the San Manuel Band of Serrano Mission Indians, say that the real issue is about sovereignty, and the rights of each tribe to preserve their own lands.

"This is not a gaming issue," Marquez told an audience at the G2E this fall. "It’s a land issue. In my back yard, there are three tribes looking to put land into trust for the purpose of building a casino on my ancestral land."

The perceived threat of an expanding off-reservation casino market has had an effect on land-into-trust applications. In California in particular, there appears to be a growing fear that "land-into-trust" automatically equals "casino."

While California residents generally support Indian gaming (a poll taken earlier this year showed 65 percent support gaming on reservations), there is equal opposition to off-reservation casinos (the same poll showed 65 percent were against reservation shopping.)

Marquez bemoaned the impact reservation shopping has had on land-into-trust applications in general. "It took seven years to get land put into trust for much-needed housing for my tribe," he said.

How can up-and-coming gaming tribes secure good casino sites? For some, a tribe-to-tribe agreement may be the answer. One thing Pombo’s new bill does allow is a tribe hosting another tribe’s casino on its land.

Or, a more established tribe may provide financial backing for one that is just breaking into the casino market. The Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut, for instance, is backing the landless Cowlitz Tribe of Washington. The Cowlitz are in the process of acquiring land in Washington State, and have proposed building a 160,000-square-foot casino in Ridgefield.

But despite such "sweetheart" deals, competition is driving a deep rift between many tribes. In the case of the battle in Fresno County, the Big Sandy Band is accusing Table Mountain Rancheria of being greedy, while an attorney for Table Mountain says the tribe is simply trying to preserve a sacred burial ground. Who would have thought the phrase "We’ll have our lawyer call your lawyer" would become standard in Indian country?

In an interview, Editor-in-Chief Victor Rocha said, "The problem with reservation shopping is that in most of these scenarios, it’s the consultants who are shopping for the tribes, with their own agendas in mind."

Rocha argues that tribes who are seeking to build casinos on other tribes’ land (as is the case in Barstow, California) are not only being disrespectful, but are making compromises that lower the standards for all tribes.

He said the battle for more and more lucrative casino sites was simply turning tribe against tribe, and not everyone can win. Rocha said, "The sad truth is: not everyone is making it to the Promised Land."