The TournEvent of Champions took place at the Desert Diamond West Valley Casino, owned and operated by the Tohono O'odham Nation in Glendale, Arizona, in August 2018. Photo: Desert Diamond

Tohono O'odham Nation wins approval to restore more homelands

The Trump administration is facing fire for its tribal homelands decisions but not everything coming out of Washington looks bad for Indian Country.

In a notice published in the Federal Register on Tuesday, the Bureau of Indian Affairs announced the approval of a land-into-trust application for the Tohono O'odham Nation. The tribe has secured another 81 acres in Glendale, Arizona, at the location of the Desert Diamond West Valley Casino, its once controversial gaming facility.

The decision, which was signed by Tara Sweeney, the recently-installed Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior, means that all of the acreage which the tribe originally purchased for the project -- about 135 acres total -- is now in trust.

The notice points out that the land was acquired in connection with the Gila Bend Indian Reservation Lands Replacement Act. The law was passed in 1986 to compensate the tribe for a 10,000-acre reservation that was flooded by the federal government in the 1960s.

Artist's rendering of the permanent Desert Diamond West Valley Casino and Resort in Glendale, Arizona. Image: Tohono O'odham Nation

The BIA, during the Obama administration, was committed to upholding the law by approving the land-into-trust application for the Glendale property. But opponents in Arizona -- including neighboring tribes with existing gaming facilities -- held up the project for almost a decade through litigation in the state and federal court systems and expensive lobbying campaigns in Washington, D.C.

The Tohono O'odham Nation eventually prevailed on every single issue. Desert Diamond West Valley finally debuted in December 2015 in a temporary structure. A $400 million permanent facility is due to open in late 2019.

But along the way, the 81-acre portion of the Glendale property became tangled in a dispute over its eligibility to be placed in trust. As a result, only about 54 acres had been approved by the BIA in 2010. Sweeney's new decision brings the tribe full circle now that the controversy has been settled.

The Gila Bend Indian Reservation Lands Replacement Act, which was co-sponsored by the late John McCain when he served in the U.S. House of Representatives, created a settlement fund to enable the tribe to restore up to 9,880 acres for the flooded reservation. As long as the acquired lands are in "non-incorporated" areas of three counties, the BIA is required to place them in trust.

Two years later, McCain helped the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act become law. Although it contains a general prohibition on gaming on newly acquired lands, Section 20 includes an exception for land acquired in connection with a settlement, such as the one for the Tohono O'odham Nation.

The tribe has since acquired another 11-acre parcel adjacent to Desert Diamond West Valley but has no plans to use it for gaming. The tribe has said it won't be seeking to have it placed in trust either.

Federal Register Notices

Notice To Acquire Land Into Trust for the Tohono O'odham Nation of Arizona (September 11, 2018)

Land Acquisitions; Tohono O'odham Nation, Arizona (August 26, 2018)

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