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Monteau: Spokane Tribe deserves casino

The Spokane Tribe of Indians should have its Spokane, Wash. area lands approved for purposes of Indian gaming. They deserve to be treated no differently than the Kalispel Tribe has been treated and, in fact, may be more deserving in some respects. As chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission, I supported the Kalispel Tribe’s right to game on its Airway Heights property; I now do the same for the Spokane Tribe.

The Airway Heights property upon which the Spokane Tribe desires to locate its casino has been owned by the tribe for many years and is currently the sight of a convenience store and gas station owned by the tribe. I have no doubt that the land in question would have been approved as a sight for their casino long ago had the Spokane Tribe not been determined to fight for their sovereignty in the federal courts for as long as they did.

The lands in question are the ancestral territory of the Spokane Tribe. That they were also ancestral territory of the Kalispel Tribe is of no consequence. Neither may claim exclusivity but both can claim a right to reacquire lands in what was once their territory. If proximity were the standard, the Spokane Tribe would have primacy to claims of ancestral territory and, if previous Indian ownership was the standard, again the Spokane Tribe may have primacy.

The Spokane Tribe was right to hold out and fight the good fight to eventually put itself in a position that is more acceptable to the tribe.

It is also of no consequence that the Spokane Tribe “has other ways to make money,” as was stated by one opposing public official. Under that standard, so does the Kalispel Tribe, but the Kalispel chose to exercise their rights under the law and engage in gaming. The Spokane Tribe should have no less choice. That the Spokane Tribe’s proposed casino would compete with the Kalispel Casino is also of no legal consequence. That approval of a particular gaming site creates competition with another Indian casino is not a determinative factor.

During my time at the NIGC, I approved the Connecticut Mohegan Tribe’s gaming and supported their right to negotiate a gaming compact that was no less than what the Mashantucket Tribe a few miles away had negotiated. I was roundly criticized for the position I took there and it was predicted that the two casinos would face ruin because of being so close in proximity. As it turns out, the Mashantucket had their biggest one day gross revenue the day the Mohegan Casino opened. The synergy created by the proximity of those casinos not only sustained the two casinos but both tribes went on to greatly expand their operations.

As NIGC chairman, I was asked many times by Washington State officials and members of Congress to shut the Spokane Tribe’s gaming operations down until the tribe signed a tribal-state gaming compact. Despite extreme criticism from the aforementioned parties, I refused to do so on the grounds that the State of Washington was negotiating in “bad faith” by refusing to negotiate a “scope of gaming” that was commensurate with Class III gaming already conducted within the state by other “persons or entities.” I took the same stance with relation to Idaho, California, Oregon, Michigan and New Mexico.

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act does not require that a tribe conduct Class III gaming “the same” as the state. Under IGRA the tribes can conduct gaming outside the constraints of state law and regulatory limits, as long as the type of games being played were not prohibited under state law. That means if the state is allowing some other entity or persons to utilize gaming “devices” that work on the same premise as a slot machine, but the state “limits” how and when they are played, then the tribe has a right to conduct similar games but without reference to the state limitations. Thus, a state that refuses to negotiate a tribal-state gaming compact, because the tribe refuses to submit to the state “limitations,” is acting in “bad faith” under the standards of IGRA.

That one tribe chose to carry on the fight and another tribe chose to accept the terms offered by the state does not mean that the former tribe was wrong to expect something different and should be made to pay a penalty for doing what governments will do; litigate to vindicate their rights under the federal Constitution, laws and treaties of the United States. The Spokane Tribe was right to hold out and fight the good fight to eventually put itself in a position that is more acceptable to the tribe. While I still don’t believe that what the State of Washington has negotiated with the tribe comports with the intent of the IGRA, if the tribe is willing to accept it, that is their sovereign prerogative.

It is sad that one tribe with a very small service population would begrudge a tribe with a much larger population the same opportunity under federal law around which they have built their prosperity. This is not only legally wrong but morally wrong.

The Spokane area is home to a large urban Indian population that is from neither tribe, and the potential for employment of this population grows incrementally with the presence of another Indian casino. While it has been demonstrated over and over again across the country that Indian casinos create jobs for far more non-Indian employees than Indians, anyone familiar with our urban Indian population knows that unemployment is a standing issue.

Both tribes should endeavor to hire not only their own tribal members, but also members of other tribes. As such they can be a force for Indian employment in the Spokane and northern Idaho region. Unfortunately the Kalispel Tribe does not observe “Indian preference” in hiring, which it can under existing law. The Spokane Tribe does observe such hiring preference. Just one more reason that the Spokane Tribe deserves this opportunity.

Harold Monteau is a Chippewa Cree attorney residing on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation in Idaho. He is the former chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission and is an advocate for Buy Indian/Buy Native and Indian preference in hiring, contracting and procurement. He can be reached at hamlaw@live.com.