The Alaska Department of Law can’t seem to make up its mind on whether the 49th state should favor or oppose the opening of a Native-owned casino near Anchorage, but city Mayor Ethan Berkowitz is down with the idea and has been for a long time.
“The Municipality of Anchorage supports the (Native Village of Eklutna’s) goals of economic determination and believes both the tribe and the surrounding community will benefit from the jobs and related economic development the project will bring,” he wrote the U.S. Department of the Interior in January of last year.
His endorsement at the time went unreported and has for some reason never made the news.
In January of last year, Interior was considering whether a Native allotment near Birchwood belonging to Olga Ondolla qualified as “Indian Lands” per the terms of the Indian Regulatory Gaming Act.
Six months after getting Berkowtiz’s letter, Interior ruled the parcel was not “Indian Land,” stymying the plans of the Village of Eklutna, which had contracted to lease the land from Ondola in hopes of opening a casino-style gaming business near the busy Glenn Highway between Anchorage, the state’s largest city, and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, the largest city’s biggest bedroom community.
Casino-style gambling is illegal in the 49th state. An “Indian Land” or “Indian Country” designation for the Ondolla property would, however, sidestep state restrictions by creating a mini-nation within the state with powers to govern itself free from some state laws.
“It is generally within these areas that tribal sovereignty applies and state power is limited,” according to U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines.
“Indian Country” is particularly contentious in the north because of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 (ANCSA), which sought to resolve aboriginal land claims free of the problems caused by reservations in the lower 48 states, and because of a later executive-order recognizing 227 tribes (now 229) in Alaska.
“Each Alaska Native village is designated as a federally recognized tribe,” as the Environmental Law Institute notes. Because of this decision, about 40 percent of all federally recognized tribes exist in a state home to about 3 percent of the approximately 6.6 million Native Americans living in the U.S.
But the Alaska Native tribes have almost no power because they have no land over which to execute authority.
Some have been pushing to put settlement act lands into federal trust and redesignate them as “Indian Country” to gain greater local, political control. The settlement act ignored tribes and gave lands and money to newly created corporations – 13 of them regional Native corporations and about 220 village corporations.
Nearly $1 billion in seed money was given to the corporations to help them succeed in the American capitalist economy, and many of them have done well. Ten of the 20 biggest, Alaska-based employers are today Native corporations, according to Zippia, a website for job seekers.
Three of them employ more people than the State of Alaska.
Alaska Business magazine last June described the various Alaska Native businesses as “Homegrown Powerhouses” and estimated annual earnings at near $10.5 billion or “more than 70 percent of the $14.8 billion in revenue from Alaska-owned business.”
But a lot of the jobs with Native corporations are with subsidiaries companies outside Alaska or simply “Outside” as Alaskans refer to the rest of the country. Many of those subsidiaries were set up to take advantage of bidding preferences on federal contracts granted to Alaska Native-owned businesses.
A 2016 General Accounting Office report found 344 Alaska Native-owned businesses, which get preferential “8A” bidding status with the federal government, doing about $4 billion of business per year with the government.
In this regard, the settlement act has been hugely successful, but much of rural Alaska remains jobless and plagued by poverty. Tribes there would like to get land to see if they could do a better job of generating employment than the corporations have done.
Non-tribal members, however, fear that an Indian Country decision creating hundreds of new sovereign nations in the state would Balkanize Alaska. All of which makes the Eklunta land designation a significant precedent for how Interior would handle requests to create Indian Country going forward.
Reviewing and reviewing
“We are aware of this matter and its potential implications to the state, and are looking into it,” Department of Law spokeswoman Cori Mills reported on Aug. 19. “At this time, we have not made a decision on the state’s involvement.”
Since then, she has repeatedly refused to explain exactly what it is the state is “looking into.”
“I found out the Department of Law is evaluating this matter to determine whether to intervene,” Mill’s stand-in, Department of Law attorney Maria Pia Bahr emailed this week. “If Law does intervene, that motion would be filed by the end of October. Please check back with Cori next week for an update.
“Let me know if you have any other questions.”
A question as to what the state was “evaluating” got a Mills-style response. No answer.
The Municipality, on the other hand, has had no problem making up its mind on the issue.
“NVE members are Dena’ina Athabascan people who have occupied the Upper Cook Inlet region for thousands of years. The Village of Eklutna is the oldest inhabited place in what is now the Anchorage area,” Berkowitz wrote. “It is the closest Indian tribe to Anchorage, and together with Eklutna Inc. (a village Native corporation), it is a major landowner and important fixture in the local political and cultural landscape.
“Despite NVE’s rich history and prominent regional status, it has not benefited economically from Alaska’s development over the years and the Tribe continues to have significant needs. Total NVE member unemployment is approximately 35 percent. Symptomatic of its poor economic situation, NVE relies primarily on grants to fund its operations and to provide vital health and social welfare programs to its members.
“Approximately 85 percent of tribal members live at or below the poverty level, and the average, annual per capita income is a mere $11,000. Without the project, there is little hope that the Tribe’s situation will improve in the foreseeable future.”
That makes their situation much like that of most Natives in rural Alaska.
The mayor saw a big boom for the tribe and for Anchorage in Interior providing a pathway to the creation of the state’s first casino. The project would start off creating construction jobs before providing full- and part-time jobs and “as many as 500 new indirect jobs,” Berkowitz said.
He classified the operation as a “modest Class II casino” about 20 miles from downtown Anchorage. Class II casinos are limited in the kind of gambling they can allow. Technically, they can offer only bingo-style games, but thanks to modern technology, engineers have been able to create slot machines that mimic what is legally defined as bingo.
“Knowing the hurdles Native American casinos faced to allow Class III slots, gaming companies began developing Class II gaming machines: games that play like regular slots but are technically fancy versions of bingo.”
The Class II slot machines remain popular even in Native casinos with Class II licenses. There is a reason, the Slot Source notes:
Tribes were given “the power to self-regulate Class II gaming. Whereas tribes have to enter state compacts to offer Class III games.
“Another reason NA (Native American) casinos prefer Class II games is that tribes don’t owe taxes on Class II revenue like they do on Class III games.”
Casino patrons, however, are unlikley to notice these subtle differences.
“Modern Class II games can look, act, sound, and feel like typical Class III, Vegas-style slots,” Slot Source says.
Anchorage’s mayor is gambling on that raking in business in Alaska’s largest city as it has everywhere else. Nationally, the American Gaming Association in 2018 reported Native American casinos now control about 45 percent of the $261 billion gaming business.
The association reported more than 500 Native gaming casinos in 28 states. Alaska has a small, Class II casino with about 90 slot machines in the Metlakatla Indian Community in the Annette Island Reserve on the island of the same name near Ketchikan at the southern end od the Alaska Pandhandle.