MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

July 25, 2013

Cherokees offer deal in UKB land fight

Casino in Tahlequah at heart of dispute

By D.E. Smoot
Phoenix Staff Writer

— United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians officials declined to discuss an offer to settle a dispute over the tribe’s efforts to place land into trust for its casino operations.

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker extended the offer late Tuesday after his tribe took legal steps to stop federal officials from approving the UKB’s trust application. The tribe contends the Keetoowahs are operating the casino outside the law.

Jim McMillin, an Oklahoma City lawyer who represents the Keetoowahs, said Tuesday that the tribe plans to pursue its rights in court. He declined to comment Wednesday about Baker’s offer, saying he does not want to try the case in the press.

The Keetoowahs have been trying for 10 years to place the 2.03-acre site of its Tahlequah casino into trust to keep its doors open. After the casino came close to being shut down by the state of Oklahoma almost a year ago, U.S. Department of Interior officials granted the tribe’s application to place the casino land into trust.

Cherokee lawyers filed a lawsuit shortly thereafter to block the Keetoowahs’ efforts. After learning earlier this month about the decision by the U.S. Department of Interior to finish the action, Cherokee Nation Attorney General Todd Hembree filed motions Tuesday to stop federal officials from proceeding.

Later that day, Baker announced two options that he believes would settle the dispute. One option would place the UKB casino land into trust on behalf of the Cherokees and immediately execute a 99-year lease that would allow the UKB to continue operating the casino.

The second option put forward by Baker would include a land swap for land near the junction of U.S. 62 and Oklahoma 82 that has already been placed into trust for gaming purposes. A similar 99-year lease with automatic renewal clauses would allow the Keetoowahs to operate a casino there.

“As Cherokee people I believe we should be able to find a solution that works for everyone — always remembering that we all come from one fire,” Baker said in a media release. “As the elected leader of the Cherokee Nation, I never want to see jobs or economic opportunities lost for our extended Cherokee families.”

Baker said both options would allow the UKB to continue its gaming operations, retain profits and maintain the tribe’s employment base. Baker said he is hopeful UKB Chief George Wickliffe and tribal councilors will consider the “offer and join us in finding a solution that will meet all our needs.”

M. Thomas Jordan, the UKB communications director, also declined comment, saying the tribe stands by comments made Tuesday. The substance of those comments addressed the economic impact that shuttering its casino would have on the tribe, its 300 employees and the community.

Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or dsmoot@muskogeephoenix.com.