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National
Michigan tribe finally acquires land base for casino


After more than six years of delays, a Michigan tribe finally claimed victory on Friday when the Bureau of Indian Affairs placed its land into trust.

Less than a month after winning a favorable court decision, the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians celebrated another milestone. "This is an historic moment," said chairman John Miller. "A new day has dawned for our tribe."

The tribe can now move forward with plans to open a casino on 675 acres of ancestral territory in New Buffalo Township in Berrien County. The $160 million Four Winds Casino Resort is expected to generate 1,000 construction jobs and 2,000 permanent jobs.

"The tribe is ecstatic," Miller said.

While the tribe's wait for trust land status is not the longest on record -- the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe of South Dakota has been locked in litigation for more than a decade -- the Pokagon case has become symbolic of the delays being encountered at the local, state and federal level due to controversy over the expansion of the $19 billion tribal casino industry.

Michigan is home to more than 20 tribal and non-tribal gaming facilities but opposition groups have delayed the Pokagon Band's casino and casinos sought by three other tribes. As a result, the Interior Department has imposed new requirements on tribes who seek to acquire land for gaming purposes.

Tribes must now submit costly and time-consuming environmental assessments and environmental impact reports. The process is taking years to complete, as decisions on gaming matters are now being made by career bureaucrats and political appointees in Washington, D.C.

The landscape could change significantly under reforms currently being considered in Congress. Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, has held a series of hearings on gaming and has introduced a bill that would alter the land-into-trust process for tribes like the Pokagon Band.

As a restored tribe, the Pokagon Band qualifies for an exception under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act to conduct gaming on newly acquired lands. The tribe also has a separate act of Congress that directs the Interior Department to acquire land in trust.

But McCain's new bill would eliminate the section of IGRA that benefits restored, landless and newly recognized tribes. Instead, these tribes would have to demonstrate a "temporal, cultural, and geographic nexus" to the land they seek to have placed in trust.

The next hearing on the issue takes place on Wednesday, February 1, before the committee. McCain has scheduled yet another hearing on gaming on February 28, one of a handful expected this year as Congress considers amending IGRA, which became law in 1988.

"After 17 years, the gaming act needs to be updated," John Tahsuda, an aide to McCain on the committee, told tribal leaders at the Western Indian Gaming Conference earlier this month.

As for the Pokagon Band, the tribe expects to start construction on the casino in late spring or early summer. The facility could be open within 10 to 12 months.

D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Decision:
TOMAC v. Norton (January 6, 2006)

Relevant Links:
Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians - http://www.pokagon.com