Gaming machines are seen at the Prairie Flower Casino, owned and operated by the Ponca Tribe in Carter Lake, Iowa. Courtesy photo

Ponca Tribe remains confident after judge's ruling affecting new casino

A Nebraska tribal leader said he is pleased with a federal judge’s decision this week to require a federal agency to reconsider its approval of his tribe’s casino in neighboring Iowa.

Larry Wright Jr., chairman of the Ponca Tribe, said Thursday that Judge Stephanie M. Rose’s ruling that the National Indian Gaming Commission must take another look at the process used to approve the Prairie Flower Casino was mostly positive for the tribe.

“The Ponca Tribe is pleased with the court’s examination of the facts and overall conclusion,” he said. “We believe it essentially rejected the principle legal arguments the plaintiffs raised in opposition to our right to game on our sovereign land in Carter Lake.”

The Prairie Flower Casino is located on tribal trust land in Carter Lake, Iowa. It is named for a daughter of Chief Standing Bear who died when her people were forced to leave their homelands by the federal government in 1877.

Indianz.Com Video by Kevin Abourezk: Ponca Tribe Celebrates Opening of New Casino

Thanks to the advocacy of Chief Standing Bear, the Ponca were allowed to return home only to see their federal status terminated by the United States a century later. The tribe's recognition was restored in 1990, which the NIGC considered when it determined, first in 2007 and again in 2017, that the casino could open on "restored" lands in Carter Lake.

The tribe's land in Carter Lake was placed in trust in 2003. Generally, land acquired after the passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988 cannot be used for gaming.

But Section 20 of the law contains exceptions to that general rule. According to the NIGC, the "restored lands" exception applies to the Poncas.

Prairie Flower is being litigated by the state of Iowa and the city of Council Bluffs, where non-Indian gaming facilities are located. The state of Nebraska also intervened, citing impacts on its interests -- the city of Omaha, the most populous in the region, is next door to Carter Lake.

The casino opened last October following the NIGC's favorable review.

A drum group performs a Ponca honoring song during a grand opening ceremony at the Prairie Flower Casino in Carter Lake, Iowa, on October 31, 2018. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Rose's decision does not require the facility to close, and Wright said he doesn’t expect a different ruling from the NIGC when it reconsiders its earlier decision.

“Obviously, we would have liked to have it all cleared up, but we believe we’re still in the strong position that we were when we decided to move forward,” he said.

The state of Iowa claims the Ponca Tribe agreed in 2002 not to use its land in Carter Lake for a casino when it first sought to put that land into federal trust. But in its 2017 decision, the NIGC ruled that agreement wasn't valid and couldn't be used to stop the tribe from gaming.

In Rose’s decision, she reaffirmed the federal agency’s decision that the agreement wasn’t properly authorized by the tribe and should not prohibit the tribe from seeking restored lands status for its Carter Lake land.

The judge’s ruling requires the NIGC to reconsider whether the 2002 agreement affects the status of the tribe’s land as “restored lands” that are eligible for gaming.

The tribe said it is confident that the agreement doesn’t impact the status of its Carter Lake land. The tribe also said the judge’s ruling doesn’t vacate the NIGC’s underlying ruling.

“We just believe the court’s decision offered some clear victories for us,” Wright said.

He said Prairie Flower has generated revenue well beyond the tribe’s projections since opening and the tribe still plans to expand the casino.

Wright said the casino has already begun benefiting his people and has helped fund cultural events. However, its primary impact has come through the nearly 100 people – mostly Natives – that it employs, he said.

“That economic development and growth for the metro area is as important as the revenue,” he said.

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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