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BIA starts new year with off-reservation gaming policy



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The Bush administration rejected a slew of off-reservation casinos on Friday, drawing angry responses from tribal leaders across Indian Country.

In a series of unprecedented letters, officials at the Interior Department said the proposed casinos would not be in the best interests' of the 11 tribes affected. The decisions were based on a new Bureau of Indian Affairs policy that virtually eliminates any chance of off-reservation gaming.

The long-awaited policy was issued by assistant secretary Carl Artman on Thursday. It takes a strong view on the purpose of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988.

The six-page document acknowledges that IGRA was intended to promote tribal economic development but it goes on to argue that IGRA "was not intended to encourage the establishment of Indian gaming facilities far from existing reservations."

As a result, the BIA will give "greater scrutiny" to a land-into-trust application for an off-reservation casino in order to determine the impact on a tribe's sovereignty. The policy also states that "greater weight" will be given to concerns raised by local and state governments.

In rejecting the casinos, Interior officials mainly relied on the first test and cited the distance between the proposed gaming site and the tribe's reservation. The letters said tribal members would not directly benefit from jobs at the casinos and might even be forced to leave their homes to obtain employment.

"In the first case, the operation of the gaming facility would not directly improve the employment rate of tribal members living on the reservation," the letter to the chiefs of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe of New York stated.

"In this case, the remote location of the proposed gaming facility may encourage reservation residents to leave the reservation for an extended period to take advantage of the job opportunities created by the tribal gaming facility. The departure of a significant number of reservation residents and their families could have serious and far-reaching implications for the remaining tribal community and its continuity as a community," the letter continued.

Nearly identical statements were found in the letters to the other tribes. From New York to Wisconsin to California, tribal leaders blasted the decisions and the new policy.

"Incredibly, the Interior's own statements, guidance and past findings in the administrative record do not support this decision," said St. Regis Mohawk Chief Lorraine White. "The bottom line is Indian Country is getting screwed on a totally fictitious basis."

White and other tribal leaders blamed Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne for the policy. They said it was based on his personal views against off-reservation gaming -- as governor of Idaho, he was opposed to the practice.

"The Secretary implies that tribal members would be better off poor and unemployed and living on the reservation rather than living off the reservation near the casino with a job," said Francine Kupsch, the newly elected spokesperson for the Los Coyotes Band of Cahuilla and Cupeño Indians in California.

"The purpose of Indian gaming is to improve the quality of life for all our members, by providing electricity, improved housing conditions, education and health care, regardless of where they reside," added Kupsch, whose former trailer home -- which lacked running water and electricity -- was featured in pro-gaming television ads in California several years ago.

Two more rejection letters went to the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma and the Stockbridge Munsee Band of Mohican Indians in Wisconsin. Both tribes want casinos in their ancestral homeland in New York.

Artman didn't participate in Mohawk, Seneca-Cayuga or Mohican decisions because his tribe -- the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin -- is also seeking to open a casino in New York. Jim Cason, the associate deputy secretary at Interior, signed the letters to these three tribes.

Two more Wisconsin tribes, the St. Croix Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, survived the mass rejection -- at least for now. As part of a lawsuit, the BIA has agreed to delay a decision on their joint off-reservation casino project until January 31, at the earliest.

Not every tribe with an off-reservation casino proposal received bad news either. George Skibine, the director of the Office of Indian Gaming Management at the BIA, sent letters to 12 more tribes that said their applications weren't complete.

But these remaining tribes -- along with five more that didn't receive a letter -- face similar fates to the 11 that were rejected last week. In nearly every case, the gaming site at issue is hundreds of miles from the reservation.

Even if the site isn't as far, the new policy states that the BIA can reject an off-reservation casino based on jurisdictional concerns affecting local and state governments. The United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians sought land only about 70 miles away from the tribal headquarters in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, but opposition from state and local officials derailed the tribe's proposal on Friday.

The policy only mentions tribes that are seeking casinos under the two-part determination process of IGRA. The process requires federal and state approval of an off-reservation casino.

Another part of IGRA, known as Section 20, applies to newly recognized tribes, restored tribes, tribes in Oklahoma with former reservations and tribes with land claim settlements. The BIA has been developing rules to address these casino proposals but has yet to publish the regulations in the Federal Register.

The tribes that were rejected on Friday can challenge the decisions before the Interior Board of Indian Appeals. They could also file lawsuits in federal court or submit new applications, since nothing in federal law bars them from trying again.

Off-Reservation Gaming Policy:
Guidance on taking off-reservation land into trust for gaming purposes (January 3, 2008)

BIA Letters:
Big Lagoon Rancheria | Chemehuevi Tribe | Hannahville Indian Community | Jemez Pueblo | Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa | Los Coyotes Band of Cahuilla and Cupeño Indians | Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians | St. Regis Mohawk Tribe | Stockbridge Munsee Band of Mohican Indians | Seneca-Cayuga Tribe | United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians | Other January 4 Tribes

Relevant Links:
Bureau of Indian Affairs - http://www.doi.gov/bureau-indian-affairs.html

Related Stories:
Carl Artman letter on off-reservation gaming (1/4)
St. Regis Mohawk Tribe responds to BIA rejection (1/4)
Bush holding back off-reservation gaming proposals (11/16)
BIA tackles land-into-trust backlog (11/9)
New York tribe pushes Interior to act on casino land (11/1)
BIA still having trouble accounting for land-into-trust (10/5)
Cason explains misgivings on land-into-trust (4/20)
Artman jumps into job as new head of BIA (4/12)
Artman highlights priorities as head of BIA (4/5)
Leadership changes at BIA under Artman (4/2)
New York governor approves off-reservation casino (2/20)
Off-reservation gaming concerns at Interior (2/16)
BIA continues work on gaming land regulation (12/04)