MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Local News

August 29, 2013

Keetoowahs, Cherokees negotiate fate of UKB casino

Representatives of two Tahlequah-based tribes continued negotiations Thursday trying to find a way to keep open the doors of a casino slated for closure at midnight today.

The United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians earlier this week exhausted its legal remedies to place land where its Tahlequah casino is located into trust. Since then, UKB officials authorized last-minute negotiations with the Cherokee Nation in an effort to keep the casino open.

The proposal reportedly being considered would allow the Cherokee Nation to put the UKB’s casino land into trust. The UKB then would be able to operate its casino pursuant to the terms of a 99-year lease, the terms of which have yet to be made public.

Amanda Clinton, a Cherokee Nation spokeswoman, said there was no word Thursday afternoon about how those negotiations were going. Clinton, however, said the tribe would “continue to work with the UKB toward the best resolution for all.”

As those negotiations continued Thursday, Principal Chief Bill John Baker announced an offer of employment to any workers who might be displaced by the potential closure of the UKB casino. Baker said displaced workers would be offered employment with Cherokee Nation Entertainment, the tribe’s gaming, hospitality and retail arm.

“Employees of the Keetoowah Cherokee Casino are innocent bystanders in this two decades-long legal battle,” Baker said in a media statement. “While we may be different Cherokee tribes, we come from one fire.”

Baker said he believes it is important that those “workers who may be displaced” by the possible closure of the UKB casino be “able to provide for their families.” The employment offer, he said, was an attempt to alleviate uncertainties.

“Welcoming our Keetoowah brothers and sisters with open arms is simply the right thing to do,” Baker said. “We want to calm any fears they may have and let them know we will do everything in our power to make sure any transition is as smooth as possible.”

Three employment registration meetings have been scheduled Tuesday at the Webb Building on the Northeastern State University campus in Tahlequah. The meetings will be from 10 a.m. to noon, from 1 to 3 p.m. and from 4 to 6 p.m. Participants, who need to attend only one of the three meetings, should be prepared to provide proof of UKB casino employment and two forms of identification.

The UKB has operated its Tahlequah gaming center for about 27 years. The gaming facility began as a small bingo hall in 1986 and evolved into a thriving casino, but it became the target of state regulators and the Cherokee Nation because it is located on land that has not been placed into trust.

State law prohibits tribes from operating casinos on property that does not qualify as Indian trust land. Attempts to enforce state gaming laws were thwarted in 2004 when a state district judge issued a temporary injunction because of ongoing questions about whether the UKB casino was on Indian land.

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. The UKB reached an agreement with the state of Oklahoma in 2012 to either cease gaming or have the land taken into trust by July  31 — the deal was extended a month.

Efforts to place the land into trust were blocked by the Cherokee Nation, which successfully argued the placement of land located within its jurisdiction into trust for another tribe violates its sovereign rights. The U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals denied on Monday the UKB’s request to stay the lower court ruling pending appeal.

On Tuesday, UKB Assistant Chief Charles Locust said tribal administrators would continue “working to resolve this situation.” The UKB casino is the tribe’s primary revenue source and supports about 300 jobs.

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

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