The Tlingit-Haida Central Council has issued a statement saying it has an approved, federal gaming ordinance, but denying it has any plan to build a casino in Juneau at this time. The Council says it wants to develop “a diverse retail, cultural and entertainment project.”
This is the crux of the complete statement:
“In May the Central Council, like other tribal governments in Alaska and elsewhere, adopted a tribal gaming ordinance consistent with federal law. While Central Council has long been interested in resuming its bingo operations, its overall focus is on developing a diverse retail, cultural and entertainment project. That project predated and is not affected by the Akiachak litigation over tribal trust land acquisition and would not involve class III Indian gaming. It is but one of many new opportunities Central Council is pursuing. Because any economic development presents a long list of legal requirements that must be met, Central Council is moving ahead deliberately, and in collaboration with other jurisdictions once a project is fully reviewed and approved.”
Tlingit-Haida provides a variety of social services in Southeast Alaska, and like many social service organizations in the state it is deeply worried about funding given the state government revenue crisis.
“Tribal economic development is essential if Central Council is to hope to meet the needs of its tribal citizens,” Tlingit-Haida president Richard J. Peterson posted. “We must start up our engines of economic activity just like other Indian and Native communities throughout the United States.”
Outside, Indian casinos have proven among the biggest of those economic engines. But casino development in Alaska was long blocked by the lack of “Indian country” on which to build. That changed when Gov. Bill Walker decided to end state efforts to block the Secretary of the Interior from taking Native lands into trust.
Indian Country is coming soon to Alaska and with it the opportunity for casino development somewhere.
Alaska’s first Indian gambling casino appears to be in the works.
National Indian Gaming Commission records indicate a gaming ordinance for the Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska was approved on May 13.
Juneau City-Borough records show the Council owns at least an acre of land in what is still called the “Indian Village” next to the state office building in the heart of the state’s capital city. Tlingit-Haida also owns considerable property elsewhere in the Juneau area.
Juneau is a hugely popular summer tourist town where many have long thought a casino would prove a rousing success. The impediment to construction, up until now, has been the lack of “Indian country” in the 49th state.
That barrier to development was removed on Aug. 15 when Alaska Gov. Bill Walker announced the state would not fight the federal government over a proposal to begin creating tiny Indian nations within Alaska by taking Native lands into trust. The state and tribes had been battling over this issue for more than a decade.
The Kenaitze Indian Tribe proposed a casino on the Kenai Peninsula in 2005 only to be rejected by the Gaming Commission. It said the tribe lacked sovereign Indian property on which to build.
Sovereign nation status
“In a memo to the gaming commission…an Interior lawyer said the tribe had not made the case that it ‘exercises governmental power’ over the property in question, a restricted allotment owned by a tribal member,” the Anchorage Daily News, a now gone Alaska newspaper, reported at the time. “Such control by the tribe over its land is one of two criteria that must be established for a gaming plan to be approved; the other is that the property be a reservation, federal trust land or lands that under federal law must remain in Native ownership forever.”
The Kenaitzes were at the time stymied by Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. Recognizing the economic failure of Indian reservations in the lower 48, the settlement between the U.S. government and the first Alaskans set out to pave a new way forward.
Instead of pushing Native Americans onto reservations, Uncle Sam agreed to settle their claims to all of Alaska by paying them nearly $1 billion, granting them title to 44 million of acres of land of their choosing, and helping them set up profit-making corporations intended to help grow economic opportunities.
The act appeared to abolish federal trust status for Native lands, but a federal district court judge in Washington, D.C. ruled Alaska’s more than 200 tribes still had the authority to ask for trust status if they gained ownership of land. The state appealed, but Walker eventually dropped that appeal
At the time ANCSA was written, no one could have guessed the plan would foreclose what was destined to become the biggest economic opportunity ever for American Indians – gambling.
Native gaming is today a better than $28.9 billion per year business with 243 tribes operating 489 gambling facilities in 28 states, according to a Nathan Associates report on the “Native Gaming Industry.”
Steps left to climb
Tlingit-Haida still has hurdles it must clear to get into the gaming business. It would appear to need to move lands into trust, and according to its commission-approved gaming ordinance, negotiate a “tribal-state gaming compact duly approved by the Secretary of the Interior or (obtain) gaming procedures issued by the Secretary of the Interior” before instituting Class III gaming.
Class III gaming includes the most valuable casino businesses: slot machines, blackjack, roulette, baccarat and craps. States have limited authority to regulate this sort of Indian gambling.
Some states tried to stop Indian casinos by refusing to negotiate Class III gaming compacts or by putting up unreasonable demands in negotiations, but that ended when the Secretary of the Interior was granted the power to override states deemed to be acting in bad faith and directly grant permission to tribes, according to the National Gambling Impact Study.
In Alaska, Interior is already well accustomed to over-riding the wishes of the state in favor of Native entities.
Federal-state-Native relations are complicated everywhere these days, the Gambling Impact study noted.
“…The image of reservations for many has changed from being places in which the residents were involuntarily confined to being places of protection from outside forces, especially against the several state governments traditionally seen as hostile to Native American rights,” the study’s authors wrote. “(The federal government despite all of its possible benign neglect — and the Hollywood image notwithstanding — has traditionally been regarded as their protector).”
Akiachak, the Kuskokwim River village in Western Alaska that led litigation to allow Alaska Natives to put land into trust, is an Alaska village wanting one of those “places of protection from outside forces.” Tribes in other places – Alaska has 224 tribes, one for almost every community – might, however, be more interested in the opportunities for capitalism that casinos present.
More than three decades ago, Alaska Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott began his rise to power in a meeting with Southeast Alaska Native leaders in the Juneau Indian Village where they plotted the overthrow of then Sealaska Regional Native Corporation President John Borbridge. Mallott, who questioned the late Borbridge’s business skills, eventually became the head of Sealaska and led it to financial success before shifting his attention to politics, then to Native rights, and then back to politics.
Mallot has been an advocate for putting lands into trust. In a Walker media release noting the state was ending its opposition to the idea, Mallott was quoted heralding an “opportunity to establish a new set of rules that works for our particular circumstances.”
A little over a month ago, Anchorage attorney Don Mitchell, a man once revered in the Native community as the legal counsel for the Alaska Native Federation and now widely reviled in the Native community for questioning what has happened since the passage of ANCSA, predicted the likely outcome on the state level and warned that Indian casinos might be coming soon.
But even he missed the fact that at least one Native group was already a step ahead of the game.
“…When the state next loses,” Mitchell wrote in the Alaska Dispatch News on July 2, “one of the most likely outcomes will be the arrival of Indian casinos.
“If anyone thinks that is unlikely, they need to visit Duluth, Minnesota, where in 1985 the Secretary of the Interior used section 5 of the Indian Reorganization Act to transform the land under a boarded-up Sears & Roebuck Co. store downtown into an Indian reservation on which the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa today operates the Fond-du- Luth Casino.”
As in Duluth, there are lands in Anchorage that have in the past been eyed as possible sites for a Native casino.
As the book title makes obvious, he has some issues with Indian gaming, but he is not alone.
“Small tribes with land close to big cities have done well,” The Economist reported in July of last year. “Yet a new study in the American Indian Law Journal suggests that growing tribal gaming revenues can make poverty worse.
“The study looks at two dozen tribes in the Pacific northwest between 2000 and 2010. During that time, casinos owned by those tribes doubled their total annual take in real terms, to $2.7 billion. Yet the tribes’ mean poverty rate rose from 25 percent to 29 percent. Some tribes did worse: among the Siletz poverty jumped from 21.1 percent to 37.8 percent.”
That wouldn’t be good news in Alaska where some tribes are already plagued by extreme poverty. But the casinos themselves might not be the poverty-driving factor so much as how the Native groups running the casinos distribute the profits.
“…The biggest problem may be the way casino profits are sometimes disbursed,” The Economist reported. “Per capita payments have grown as gaming revenues have risen. ‘These payments can be destructive because the more generous they become, the more people fall into the trap of not working,’ says Ron Whitener, a law professor, tribal judge and a member of the Squaxin Island Tribe in Washington state. Of the 17 tribes in the study that handed casino profits directly to members, ten (59 percent) saw their poverty rates rise. Of the seven tribes that did not (distribute profits), only two (26 percent) saw such an increase.”
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.