Gun Lake Trust Land Reaffirmed by Congress

Almost four years after opening its casino the Gun Lake Tribe can rest assured that the casino’s trust land can no longer be challenged in court.
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Almost four years after opening its casino in Wayland Township, Michigan, the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish-Band of Pottawatomie Indians, also known as the Gun Lake Tribe, can rest assured that the casino’s trust land can no longer be challenged in court.

At the end of September, President Obama signed S. 1603, “The Gun Lake Trust Land Reaffirmation Act," which reaffirms the trust status of the tribal land upon which the Gun Lake Casino is located. The casino opened in February 2011. The U.S. Senate unanimously approved the legislation on June 19, 2014, and the House of Representatives gave final approval of the bill on September 16, 2014. The law bars current and future legal challenges to the status of the tribe’s 147-acre parcel of land.

“This is a historic day for the tribe and Indian country. This new law not only reaffirms the trust status of our land, but also permanently ends the frivolous legal challenges that our tribe and the local community have faced for more than 10 years,” Gun Lake Chairman D.K. Sprague said in a statement. “We are pleased that Congress and the President of the United States have vindicated our position.”

The first lawsuit challenging the Interior Department’s decision to take the land into trust was filed in 2005 by MichGo (Michigan Gambling Opposition), an anti-Indian casino group, which took its case all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. In January 2009, the high court refused to hear MichGo’s arguments, freeing Interior to finalize Gun Lake’s land into trust application.

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Meanwhile, in August 2008 David Patchak, a MichGo associate who lives near the casino, had filed a separate lawsuit in federal court claiming Interior did not have the authority to take the land into trust for Gun Lake because the tribe was not “under federal jurisdiction” in 1934 when the Indian Reorganization Act was passed. Patchak’s lawsuit was based on Carcieri v. Salazar, which was pending in front of the Supreme Court at the time. When the high court issued its controversial ruling in February 2009, which supported Patchak’s argument, his case moved forward.

RELATED: Gun Lake Tribe Ruling Challenged

The federal court dismissed Patchak’s lawsuit on procedural grounds, saying he did not have standing – the right to initiate a lawsuit – to challenge the Quiet Title Act (QTA), which said the federal government could not be sued in property disputes involving trust or restricted Indian lands. But an appeals court reversed the lower court ruling and expanded the previous criteria for “standing,” which previously had required someone to be injured or affected by an action. Gun Lake and the Department of Justice petitioned the Supreme Court to review the appeals court decision. The high court’s ruling in June 2012 upheld the appeals courts decision that Patchak had standing to file the lawsuit even though the tribe's land-into-trust application had already been finalized by the Interior Department. The Supreme Court remanded the case back to the district court for a trial.

RELATED: Supremes’ Ruling Opens Floodgates to Challenges of Indian Land Trust Acquisition

“So we were looking at going all the way back down to federal district court to litigate the case on its merits, which would have meant another five years in court,” Gun Lake spokesman James Nye said. “And that’s when we began to assess whether there was another solution. The tribe has always enjoyed tremendous local support, so we consulted with local elected officials and got an overwhelming response. They wanted to know the potential harm that could be caused by the Patchak lawsuit. One thousand employees under a cloud … the tribe couldn’t expand on its economic development plan …“

Gun Lake was in a unique position to seek the legislative remedy to Patchak’s legal challenge because not only had the land already been taken into trust but also because the casino was built and operating, Nye said.

Nye expressed appreciation to the community for its support, to senators Debbie Stabenow and Carl Levin, sponsor and co-sponsor, respectively, of S. 1603 and to Rep. Fred Upton for leading passage of the bill in the U.S. House. He gave special thanks to lobbyist Larry Rosenthal of Ietan Consulting.

As for Patchak’s Carcieri challenge, Nye said, “I can tell you unequivocally that we believe the tribe was under federal jurisdiction in 1934. This position is supported by an enormous amount of historical documentation.”

After the 10 years of legal battles, the legislation affirming Gun Lake’s trust land basically ended up maintaining the status quo, Nye said, but it was a huge drain on the tribe’s resources costing millions of dollars.

Since the Gun Lake Casino opened in 2011, the Gun Lake Tribe has shared casino revenues of more than $52,200,000 with state and local governments.