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Gun Lake: ‘In land we trust’

BRADLEY, Mich. – The Interior Department has formally taken 147 acres of land into trust for the Gun Lake Tribe, ending a decade of opposition from an anti-Indian casino group.

Interior’s action took place Jan. 30; nine days after the U.S. Supreme Court denied a petition from Michigan Gaming Opposition (MichGO) challenging the interior’s authority to take land into trust.

A few days earlier, U.S. District Court Judge Richard J. Leon tossed out a motion filed by former Wayland Township Trustee David Patchak, asking for a stay to stop the federal government from putting the tribe’s land into trust. Both actions were based on a highly controversial land into trust case – Carcieri vs. Narragansett – filed by the state of Rhode Island against the Narragansett Indian Tribe. Carcieri questions the interior secretary’s authority to take land into trust and whether land can be taken into trust for tribes that were not recognized in 1934, the year of the Indian Reorganization Act.

The two legal actions end any ambiguity about Gun Lake’s legal ability to move forward with its planned $200 million casino.

The tribe issued a press release with the exuberant headline “In land we trust.”

“Today we rejoice knowing that all our hard work has paid off and all the sacrifices of our ancestors were not made in vain. Now it’s official; justice has been served to those who were motivated by greed and power to delay this project for nearly 10 years,” said Gun Lake Chairman D.K. Sprague.

The Interior Department’s authorization of the transfer of the casino land title to the federal government is not open to legal challenge.

The tribe hopes to open the doors of the Gun Lake Casino in about 16 months. The casino will have 2,500 slot machines and 75 table games. It will directly employ 1,800 people with a total average annual compensation package of $40,000, and provide an additional 3,100 indirect jobs and more than $20 million a year in purchases of goods and services from the area’s businesses.

Funds will also go to the state’s general fund from the tribal-state compact signed in 2007 that will provide the state eight percent of gaming revenues, with two percent going to surrounding communities, on the first $150 million in annual revenue. If the casino makes more than that, the state’s share increases.

The 300-member Gun Lake Tribe was federally acknowledged in 1999, but its efforts to take land into trust were snarled in court proceedings almost immediately. The interior granted final approval to the tribe’s land into trust application in May 2005, but MichGO immediately challenged the interior in federal court.

Over the years, MichGO has opportunistically taken advantage of every legal twist and turn filing actions and appeals of rulings in order to delay the moment when the interior could take the land into trust.

Although MichGO was able to delay the land into trust acquisition, the tribe, whose formal name is the Match-e-be-nash-she-wish Band of Potawatomi Indians, has won every legal action. MichGO followed in the footsteps of its ideological and financial partner, 23 Is Enough, which opposed – ultimately unsuccessfully – the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indian’s plan to open Four Winds Casino in southwestern Michigan.

“We said from day one that we will prevail over these frivolous legal challenges, and we did,” Sprague said. “We also said that we will never do business with any person or group that opposed this project.”

Despite opposition from the wealthy businessmen and powerful individuals in the anti-casino groups, Gun Lake’s casino project has drawn support from local communities and organizations.

FOGLI – Friends of the Gun Lake Indians – has more than 10,000 members. The tribe is also supported by more than 40 organizations including local governments, business chambers, building trade unions and civic groups. The tribe paid homage to one of its supporters in the headline to its press release.

“One of our dearest friends was the late Bill Brown, the beloved editor of the Allegan County News, who once wrote an article called ‘In Land We Trust.’ The tribe is thankful for all our supporters, including the wonderful people who make up FOGLI,” Sprague said.

Roger VanVolkinburg, supervisor of the Wayland Township where the tribe’s land is located, lauded the land into trust action. “This is great news for area residents and business owners who have had to wait so many years. This tribal gaming project is going to create jobs and business opportunities for our community. Congratulations to the tribe and the 10,000 strong FOGLI. I am excited to work with the tribe for years to come.”

Gun Lake Casino will be operated by Station Casinos, the tribe’s management partner. For more information on the tribe, visit www.mbpi.org.