TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — Federal officials have ruled that a Tahlequah casino operated by the United Keetoowah Band Indian tribe is not on Indian land, referring the matter to state officials for possible action.
The casino has been operating for 20 years while the question of its legal status remained tied up in federal red tape, court cases and disputes between the UKB tribe and the Cherokee Nation.
Tracie Stevens, chairwoman of the National Indian Gaming Commission, sent the letter Thursday to UKB Chief George Wickliffe, Principal Chief of the Cherokees Chad Smith and Attorney General Scott Pruitt.
Stevens' letter reviews an 11-year history of legal disputes over whether the casino exists on Indian land and concludes: "The gaming site is not currently Indian land eligible for gaming" under federal law.
Stevens' letter states that a decision in May by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to take a separate parcel of land into trust for the UKB has no impact on the casino land ruling. The parcel would be the first piece of land placed in trust for the previously landless tribe.
In a letter May 24 to the tribe, the Bureau of Indian Affairs said it had approved a request by the UKB to take the 76-acre parcel of land, two miles south of the casino, into trust. The Cherokee Nation appealed the decision, saying it has sole jurisdiction and treaty rights to the land.
"I decline to delay taking action here until further resolution" of the appeal, Stevens' letter states.
"The gaming site may or may not be taken into trust by the assistant secretary at some point in the future, but that action, if and when it happens, does not change the current status of the gaming site and its eligibility for gaming today," her letter states.
The agency also sent a letter about its decision to Pruitt, Gov. Mary Fallin and Mark Green, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Oklahoma.
A federal judge's injunction still stands that would appear to prevent the state from acting to close the casino immediately. U.S. District Judge Ronald White continued an injunction in 2006 pending a more thorough review of the issue by the National Indian Gaming Commission.
Records show the casino brings in at least $13 million a year for the tribe, which does not have a gaming compact and thus pays no fees to the state. Tribes paid a combined $118 million in compact fees to the state last fiscal year.
Charles Locust, assistant chief of the UKB tribe, said the casino remained open Friday. He noted that a court case involving whether the casino is on Indian land is still open in federal court.
"We cannot comment on this case because it is currently under litigation and the tribe does not try its cases in the newspapers," Locust said.
Pruitt issued a written statement Friday saying: "We're pleased the issues before the Commission have been decided, and that the Commission ruled in favor of the State on all issues."
He sent the commission a letter on May 17 asking why the agency had taken more than five years - "an inordinate amount of time" - to rule on the casino land issue.
Diane Hammons, attorney general for the Cherokee Nation, said: "We are grateful that the NIGC has finally issued its decision, affirming what a long line of cases and administrative opinions have held, that the United Keetoowah Band has no Indian country within the Cherokee Nation geographical boundaries. We anxiously await the state of Oklahoma's enforcement of this ruling, after the federal court lifts the injunction that currently keeps the state from acting."