Small tribes get locked out in Indian casino wars

As the great-great-grandniece of Chief Seattle, Cecile Hansen got a $64 check in 1971, her share of a long-delayed settlement after the Duwamish Tribe ceded nearly 55,000 acres of land to the federal government more than a century earlier.

Today that property is some of the priciest real estate on the West Coast, the land that makes up metropolitan Seattle. With the tribe’s rich history and a membership of nearly 600, Hansen says it makes little sense for the U.S. government to maintain that the Duwamish have gone extinct.

But Hansen, a great-grandmother who has served as tribal chairwoman since 1975, said she understands why the tribe can’t win recognition, a prerequisite for any government benefits: Bigger neighboring tribes – including the Muckleshoot, Puyallup and Tulalip tribes – fear that the Duwamish would use their new status to try to open a casino in downtown Seattle, and they don’t want the competition.

“Indians are Indians, and why aren’t we supportive?” she asked. “Why does it all come to greed? . . . We all should hang together and not be so greedy.”

In Washington state, where 23 tribes already operate 32 casinos, the Duwamish are all but locked out, the victims of a broken system that allows either Congress or the Bureau of Indian Affairs to pick the winners and losers – and who will get the big-money casinos.

And the state, which trails only California and Oklahoma in the number of Indian casinos, has come to exemplify the growing warfare in the $28 billion-a-year industry, with tribes throwing mud and money at one another to gain advantage.

On opposite sides of the state, in two cases that are being watched closely across the nation, two tribes are proposing to build new off-reservation casinos, locking horns with neighboring tribes that fear the gaming sites would cut into their casino profits.

In Airway Heights near Spokane, the Spokane Tribe of Indians wants to open a new casino next to Fairchild Air Force Base, a plan that has attracted opposition from the military, the neighboring Kalispel Tribe and a group called Citizens Against Casino Expansion.

Irv Zakheim, president of the citizens group, noted that the Spokane Tribe already runs two casinos on its reservation 40 miles north of the city. While the Bureau of Indian Affairs is still reviewing the Spokane proposal, Zakheim said it would be a big mistake if the federal government were to allow tribes to simply move to a better location. That prospect, he said, has other tribes “standing around, licking their chops,” and could lead to more proposals to move casinos to bigger cities.

“It’s a precedent setter,” Zakheim said. “They’re waiting to see what happens, not only the tribes in Washington, but the tribes around the nation. I mean, wouldn’t you like to have one in downtown Los Angeles? Wouldn’t you like to have one in all of the major cities rather than out in places that aren’t as accessible?”

In the second case, the once-landless Cowlitz Tribe has bought 152 acres of property and wants to open a two-story casino in Clark County near the town of La Center. The tribe, which won federal recognition in 2000, is opposed by the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, which worries that competition would hurt its Spirit Mountain Casino 90 miles away in northwest Oregon.

While 565 tribes are formally recognized by the federal government, more than 200 are not. Over the years, tribes have won recognition through treaties, acts of Congress, presidential orders or court rulings. In 1978, the Interior Department set up its “federal acknowledgement process,” which has most cases now going through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. But Congress is still a player and retains the sole power to restore status to a “terminated” tribe such as the Duwamish.

The tribes’ entry into the big leagues of gambling 25 years ago has made the system of granting federal recognition much more volatile.

Kathryn Rand, co-director and a founder of the Institute for the Study of Tribal Gaming Law and Policy at the University of North Dakota, said the system has “needed changes for a long time, before Indian gambling.” Now, she said, the issue has only become bigger.

“The weight of tribal gaming as a political issue means that we tend to see all tribal issues through the lens of Indian gaming,” she said. “So tribal recognition has become controversial because we’re worried that those newly recognized tribes will open casinos.”

On Capitol Hill, Democratic Rep. Jim McDermott of Seattle is leading a solo fight to formally recognize the Duwamish, calling it “matter of cultural existence that’s at stake here.”

McDermott said the tribes would be less worried about making big profits from casinos if Congress showed a greater willingness to pay for basic services such as education and health care. He said that would make more sense than loosening the rules to make it easier for tribes to open even more off-reservation casinos, as the Obama administration did a year ago.

The Duwamish isn’t the only tribe in Washington state that’s on the losing end.

Former Democratic Rep. Brian Baird of Washington state said that one of the biggest disappointments of his career came when he couldn’t get Congress to formally recognize the Chinook Indian Nation, the tribe that helped Lewis and Clark in their exploration of the West in 1805. He called it “a matter of righting a historical wrong.”

“I mean it’s absurd that the federal government says this tribe doesn’t exist – it’s just absurd,” Baird said. “There’s multiple references to the tribe – they helped save Lewis and Clark’s butt. This was part of why I was so adamant about it and so passionate about it.”

With the smaller tribes locked out, the bigger tribes are left to fight it out over casino profits.

Before the Cowlitz can open its casino, the tribe must dispose of two lawsuits. Both suits claim that the federal government erred in allowing the land to be placed in trust. Tribes must ask the Bureau of Indian Affairs to have their new land placed in trust for them before they’re allowed to apply to open a casino.

Hansen said that one of the biggest ironies in the Duwamish quest for recognition is that the tribe has never proposed opening a casino, though she acknowledged that she already has been approached by and met with casino investors.

“I had dinner with a couple of people,” she said, declining to disclose any details.

Hansen, who has lived in Seattle since 1950, said she likes to kid about the possibility of building a casino, just to keep people guessing.

“I’ve already told them if that if I ever get the status, we’re going to have a floating casino in the middle of Elliott Bay,” she said. “And they kind of laugh a little bit, and then I know I can hear them say: ‘Is she serious?’’’

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