On Friday, January 4, the U.S. Interior Department issued a brief set of guidelines for determining whether off-reservation land can be taken into trust to build tribal casinos.
On the same day, the agency sent out equally-brief letters rejecting 11 applications for off-reservation casinos, many of which have been pending for years.
In addition to killing 11 proposals, the agency informed 11 other tribes that their proposals would not be acted on because of incomplete information — a move seen as a death knell to those projects.
Among the proposed casinos to be officially rejected were:
”¡ St. Regis Mohawk’s plans for a casino at Monticello raceway in New York.
”¡ The Stockbridge-Munsee (of Wisconsin) band’s proposal, financed by Sol Kerzner and Len Wolman, to build a tribal casino in the Catskills.
”¡ Wisconsin’s Lac du Flambeau tribe’s application to open a gambling hall in Lafayette County, which was submitted more than six years ago.
”¡ Three separate California tribes’ proposals to build casinos in Barstow.
”¡ Two New Mexico tribes’ efforts to open gambling halls in Anthony and Chaparral, respectively.
A spokesman for Los Coyotes, one of the California tribes seeking to open a casino in Barstow, said the government’s action was a "wholesale purging" of politically unpopular requests to expand tribal gaming.
Theoretically, federal law allows Indian tribes to build off-reservation casinos if the Interior Department, which oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs, determines that the off-reservation casino will benefit the tribe.
The new guidelines issued by the Interior Department gives greater weight to the distance from a tribe’s reservation, as well as the effect the off-reservation casino might have on life on the reservation and "state and local concerns."
Those guidelines were repeatedly cited in the rejection letters to the 11 tribes seeking to place off-reservation land in trust.
One of the letters said the ability of tribal members to commute to jobs at an off-reservation casino was a crucial consideration; another letter said if tribal members moved off the reservation to work at a casino 300 or more miles away, it would have "negative impacts on reservation life."
Many of tribes whose applications were rejected expressed outrage at the action. Some have vowed to re-submit their applications after the current Bush administration is voted out.
One tribe has already filed a lawsuit against the Department of the Interior.
St. Regis Mohawk Tribe last Thursday filed a lawsuit against Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne and his Department for denying their application for casino rights in Sullivan County, New York.
A tribal spokesman said the suit was based on the fact that Kempthorne’s decision was "arbitrary and capricious, an abuse of discretion, has no basis in the law, and constitutes an abuse of his position as Secretary."
The tribe also charges Kempthorne and his assistants with rejecting requests for Indian casinos around the country, refusing to examine benefits accrued through casino revenue while stating proposed locations for off-reservations bring no jobs to tribal members.
Also named in the suit were Kempthorne underlings James Cason, Associate Deputy Secretary, and Carl Artman, Associate Secretary for Indian Affairs. Both men have had their names attached to the form letters of rejection being issued around the nation (just fill in the tribe name and location).
The tribe has accused Kempthorne of rewriting the guidelines for judging casino applications without following proper and established procedures.
Furthermore, Empire Resorts CEO Dave Hanlon, partner of the Mohawks in the casino project, stated, "...with these new rules, the Secretary has unilaterally and without foundation in law overturned the Department of the Interior’s own determination, issued on April 6, 2000, that the proposed project would relieve the high unemployment problem on the reservation by inducing many unemployed tribal members to travel to Monticello: "Tribal members leaving for jobs at the proposed casino could reduce reservation unemployment by a substantial percentage." This fact was found by the Department of the Interior to be positive for the economic development of the Tribe and its members."
The Mohawks contend traveling distances for employment has been a tribal tradition, noting that tribal members filled out the ranks of ironworkers who built the skyscrapers of New York City.
The St.Regis Mohawks are considering further action, including a joint suit that would involve all the other tribes the Department has turned down, and appeals to the Congressional oversight committees responsible for guarding Indian rights.