MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Local News

July 24, 2013

Cherokees ask court to block Keetoowah casino trust move

Cherokees say land is in their tribal boundaries and can’t be placed in trust

Cherokee Nation officials made good on a promise made a year ago to block efforts by the United Keetoowah Band to have land placed into trust for its casino operations.

Cherokee Nation Attorney General Todd Hembree petitioned the U.S. District Court of Eastern Oklahoma, seeking an order that would prevent the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn from accepting a 2.03-acre Tahlequah tract into trust.

The Keetoowahs have operated a gaming center at the site for 27 years, beginning as a small bingo hall in 1986 and evolving into a thriving casino. State officials came close to shuttering the casino a year ago, but the U.S. Interior Department at the last minute granted the tribe’s application to place the casino property into trust.

Cherokee Nation officials allege the UKB’s Tahlequah casino is being operated illegally because of its location. They argue the placement of land located within the larger tribe’s jurisdiction into trust for another tribe violates the law.

“The attempt by the BIA to place land into trust for another tribe or band of Indians in our jurisdiction is contrary to law, and we intend to prove that in court,” Hembree said about the Bureau of Indian Affairs. “The Cherokee Nation will do everything in its power to preserve the integrity of our sovereignty.”

Jim McMillin, an Oklahoma City lawyer who represents the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma, described the filing as part of the Cherokee Nation’s “never ending quest to destroy its Cherokee brothers and sisters.” McMillin said he will ask the assigned judge to allow continued operation of the tribe’s Tahlequah casino while the lawsuit filed Tuesday is pending.

“That would be catastrophic to the tribe,” McMillin said about the possible closure of the UKB casino, noting its importance to the tribe as a revenue stream. “The effect of this injunction, if granted, would immediately throw some 300 Keetoowahs out of work — that would affect the entire community, not just the Keetoowahs.”

McMillin said efforts to place the casino site into trust have been ongoing for about 10 years. During that time, state officials attempted to shut down the casino because it was on property that does not qualify as Indian land. Those efforts were thwarted in 2004, when a state district judge issued a temporary injunction while questions about the status of the property were sorted out.

The National Indian Gaming Commission ruled a year ago the UKB’s casino property did not qualify as “Indian lands” as defined by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. That determination was upheld by the U.S. Interior Department’s solicitor, but the tribe won a reprieve on the day it was supposed to close its doors when Interior Department officials granted the UKB’s application to set the land aside in trust.

Notice of that decision was published Aug. 7 in the Federal Register. Cherokee Nation entities filed a federal lawsuit Aug. 29 to block the action. When the BIA sent notification earlier this month of its decision to proceed with the UKB’s trust application, Cherokee Nation lawyers filed the tribe’s motion for a temporary restraining order and injunction.

McMillin said UKB officials “trust that the federal court, upon hearing all of the evidence, will decline to issue an injunction and permit the Department of Interior provisionally to take the land into Trust.” He believes federal officials’ decision to proceed with the trust transaction is appropriate based upon the law.

Hembree disagreed, saying the federal government lacks the authority to take land within Cherokee Nation jurisdiction and place it in trust for another tribe. Hembree has asked the federal judge to grant a hearing for a temporary restraining order before Aug. 14, the date the land is scheduled to be accepted in trust for the UKB.

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

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