Leaders of the Ponca Tribe held a ceremonial groundbreaking for its casino in Carter Lake, Iowa, on June 8, 2018. Photo courtesy Ponca Tribe

Ponca Tribe marches toward sovereignty with long-awaited gaming project

'We can take care of ourselves'

Ponca Tribe breaks ground on long-awaited casino in Iowa
By Kevin Abourezk

Chief Standing Bear’s people, who took the long walk from Oklahoma back home to Nebraska 139 years ago, continued their march toward sovereignty recently when they broke ground on a new casino.

The Ponca Tribe celebrated the start of construction on a 4.8-acre parcel in Carter Lake, Iowa, last week, a project the tribe hopes will bring economic self-sufficiency to the tribe.

Tribal Chairman Larry Wright Jr. said the casino will serve as a much-needed economic engine for the tribe’s many social programs.

“Just a little over 27 years ago, the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska was federally recognized once again,” he said at last week’s groundbreaking in Carter Lake. “For the last 27 years, we’ve grown inch by inch, but the next 27, 50, 100 years are going to be determined by this project here today.”

Ponca Tribe on YouTube: Groundbreaking for Casino Project

The tribe is using financing provided by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community to fund construction of the casino.

Tom Ranfranz, a consultant for the Shakopee, said the tribe has provided nearly $500 million in loans to Native organizations and tribes since it started its loan program in 1997. The tribe also has provided millions of dollars in grants to tribes since 1997, including a $2 million grant to the Poncas to buy the property where the Smoke Signals tobacco shop now sits in Carter Lake, Ranfranz said.

“Shakopees believe in sharing, sharing what they have, and they’ve always been that way,” he said. “Right now, we’re very proud that the Ponca Tribe is participating in their first loan with our tribe.”

The Ponca Tribe plans to hire 100 employees in September to work at the casino and plans to add another 1,000 with the second phase of the casino project, Wright said.

“That’s putting our people to work and putting our community partners to work,” he said.

Chairman Larry Wright Jr. speaks a ceremonial groundbreaking for the Ponca Tribe's casino in Carter Lake, Iowa, on June 8, 2018. Photo courtesy Ponca Tribe

He said the casino will finally allow the tribe to not have to worry so much about federal funding cuts to its social programs.

“Any time when funding for Indian Country is under attack, we know we can take care of ourselves,” he said.

The tribe still faces legal challenges from the states of Iowa and Nebraska and city of Council Bluffs, Iowa, where local officials have expressed fear that the tribe’s casino will suck revenue from the city’s own casinos.

The National Indian Gaming Commission ruled in November the tribe could move forward with the casino. The commission initially approved the casino in 2007, but the states of Nebraska and Iowa and city of Council Bluffs challenged that decision.

A federal judge eventually ruled that the NIGC lacked the authority to take action. But the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and gave the agency another chance to consider the matter.

Ponca Tribe Chairman Larry Wright Jr., left, presents Carter Lake Mayor Ron Cumberledge with a blanket during a ceremonial groundbreaking for its casino in Carter Lake, Iowa, on June 8, 2018. Photo courtesy Ponca Tribe

The 8th Circuit said the NIGC should have taken a purported agreement with Iowa into account. But that agreement isn't valid and can't be used to stop the tribe from gaming under the restored lands exception in IGRA, the NIGC stated in its November decision.

The city of Council Bluffs filed a complaint in December against the NIGC, the Department of the Interior and officials at both agencies related to the commission’s November decision approving the casino. A federal magistrate later approved requests from the states of Iowa and Nebraska to join the complaint, which is now pending in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa.

Though Carter Lake is located in Iowa, it is physically surrounded by Nebraska due to the shifting nature of the Missouri River. It's less than a mile from Omaha’s Eppley Airfield, which sees more than 4 million passengers every year.

The city is also less than five minutes from downtown Omaha, a metropolitan region that's home to more than 900,000 people.

Carter Lake Mayor Ron Cumberledge, who spoke at last week’s groundbreaking, said the casino will benefit the entire region.

“The casino will make a large economic impact for the city of Carter Lake and the Ponca people,” he said. “I welcome this project and I hope we can have a long-lasting relationship.”

National Indian Gaming Commission Documents:
November 14, 2017 Decision | December 31, 2007 Decision

8th Circuit Court of Appeals Decision:
Nebraska v. Department of Interior (October 19, 2010)

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