Indiana lawmakers not so welcoming to Pokagon Band casino bid

A large crowd turned out for a Bureau of Indian Affairs hearing on the proposed Pokagon Band development in South Bend, Indiana, on Tuesday. Photo by Suzanne Spencer / WSBT / Twitter

Two national organizations are coming to the defense of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, whose plans to open a casino on ancestral territory in Indiana aren't being welcomed by everyone.

On Monday, the city council in South Bend voted unanimously to support the tribe's proposal for a a casino, hotel, housing, clinic and other developments on a 166-acre site. Members of the public appear to be embracing the project as well, telling the Bureau of Indian Affairs on Tuesday that it could bring jobs and revenue to their community.

But the National Indian Gaming Association and the National Congress of American Indians have observed a different reaction in the Indiana Legislature. Two lawmakers from a county with an existing non-Indian riverboat casino have questioned the tribe's presence in its own homelands.

Indiana Sen. Jim Arnold (D). Photo from Indiana Senate Democrats

Last October, Sen. Jim Arnold (D) expressed an alarmist view about the Pokagon Band. He made his comments in support of a bill to allow riverboat casinos to move on-shore.

"I don't want to say, 'The Indians are coming, the Indians are coming.' But they're coming," Arnold said at the time, The Northwest Indiana Times reported. "We have to be prepared."

Indiana Rep. Tom Dermody (R). Photo from Indiana House Republicans

Rep. Tom Dermody (R) was even more blunt about the tribe's plans. The bill for the riverboat casino expansion would also give lawmakers a role in Class III gaming negotiations

"We need to do whatever we can, and we know we're limited, in making it not so easy, and make them understand that we are concerned about their developing a casino in South Bend," Dermody said late last month, The Northwest Indiana Times reported.

Pokagon Band Chairman John Warren and South Bend city council member John Oliver with a resolution that supports the tribe's development plans. Photo from Michiana Pokagon Alliance / Facebook

Arnold and Dermody represent LaPorte County, home to the Blue Chip Casino. Although their comments can be seen as protective of a local industry, NIGA and NCAI said they came across as derogatory.

“There is no place in today’s society for tired stereotypes from a sad and tragic era," NIGA Chairman Ernie Stevens said in letters to the lawmakers. "As an elected official, I would hope that you would refrain from these types of divisive attacks in the future."

“At NCAI we are always concerned that persistent stereotypes lead to harmful statements, but we see this as an opportunity for education and growth that could lead to better understanding and partnership between the tribe, yourself and your fellow legislators," Jackie Pata, the organization's executive director, said in her letters.

The comments from Arnold and Dermody seem all the more surprising since members of the Pokagon Band have maintained a strong presence in a neighboring county -- St. Joseph -- for hundreds of years. The law that restored the tribe to federal recognition also included LaPorte in the tribe's service area.

"The Pokagon Band has called Indiana home for hundreds of years and well before the date that Indiana achieved statehood," Chairman John Warren pointed out. "The Pokagon Band deserves more respect from the Indiana legislature."

This image shows Alternative A for the land-into-trust site in South Bend, Indiana. No plans have been approved as of yet. Image from Pokagon EIS

The land-into-trust process represents new ground for Indiana. Although a decision is years away, approval of the land-into-trust application would mark the first official Indian presence in a state where a series of tribes were forcefully removed in the late 1700s and throughout the 1800s.

The Class III gaming talks would also represent a first in a state with riverboat casinos, land-based casinos and racinos. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act entitles tribes to offer the same types of gaming that are already legal in a state.

House Bill 1540, which is sponsored by Arnold and Demody, requires any compact to be submitted to lawmakers for ratification, a process common in other states. But it also dictates what "must" be included in an agreement, a provision that Warren said is troublesome.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R). Photo from Facebook

Warren said the bill, as written, will "inappropriately interfere with the Governor’s ability to negotiate in good faith with the Pokagon Band for a gaming compact that meets the requirements of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act."

The bill has cleared both chambers of the Indiana Legislature but a conference committee has been appointed to work out differences between the two versions. Warren called on lawmakers to remove the tribal gaming provision but if they don't, he urged Gov. Mike Pence (R), who has said he does not support an "expansion of gaming", to veto it.

Federal Register Notices:
Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Proposed Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians Fee-to-Trust Transfer for Tribal Village and Casino, City of South Bend, St. Joseph County, Indiana (March 12, 2015)
Notice of Intent To Prepare an Environmental Impact Statement for the Proposed Pokagon Band Tribal Village Fee-to-Trust Acquisition and Casino Project in the City of South Bend, St. Joseph County, IN (August 24, 2012)

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