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Shawnee deny immediate plans for casino in Kansas

WHITE OAK, Okla. - Shawnee Tribal Chairman James Squirrel said he is disturbed by recent Associated Press reports that stated the tribe plans to build a casino on former allotted land held by tribal members in Johnson County, Kan.

The tribe's recent re-recognition by the federal government raised questions about allotment land held in a restricted status by heirs of original allottees.

Squirrel acknowledged that land once allotted to Shawnee tribal members in Kansas has remained in the Newton McNeer family since around 1826.

He went on to say the immediate goal for the tribe is to get organized to help make things better for tribal members and that the use of land known as Shawnee Reserve 206 remains in the air as far as the tribe is concerned.

The land in question is in one of the most affluent counties in Kansas. One tract is in Desoto township and the other, larger one is in Shawnee township. The total land area is nearly 109 acres, he said. Another area in Miami County in restricted status, similar to that in Johnson County, is held by members of the Miami tribe.

"The story made it sound like we were going to go right up there tomorrow and put a casino in," Squirrel said. He also said that Greg Pitcher, described in the AP story as director of the Shawnee Tribe was actually in charge of the Administration for Native Americans grant.

"We got a grant to redo our constitution and we hired him to do it," Squirrel explained.

Pitcher was unavailable for comment because of a death in his immediate family.

Squirrel said the tribe is not trying at this time to set up a reservation on the land in Kansas. "If the opportunity presents itself we will, any tribe would."

Approximately 38 heirs, descended from the original allottees, have to decide what to do with the tracts of land in Johnson County.

A source close to the Cherokee Nation said there was an attempt a few years ago to possibly open a casino on Shawnee land in Kansas, but the proposition was voted down and nothing has been done since that time.

"Some years ago as we were a part of the Cherokee Nation," Shawnee Vice Chairman Ron Sparkman, a McNeer heir, said. "The Cherokee Nation was considering doing a joint venture but it never did materialize."

The partnership the Shawnee made an Olathe, Kan.-based company, Butler National Corp., was never severed. If and when a casino is built, Butler would be in charge of running it, Sparkman said.

The Loyal Shawnee Tribe as it was formerly known, was absorbed by the Cherokee Nation through an 1866 treaty, but retained separate heritage, culture and traditions.

The Omnibus Indian Advancement Act signed by President Clinton re-recognized the tribe.

However, members of the Shawnee council are quick to point out they are not just a "Johnny come lately" tribe, but have had a full, functioning government which has continued to function since their absorption by the larger Cherokee Nation.

"We have always, even though we have been assigned to the Cherokee Nation, we have maintained our own tribal government, ceremonies, language and customs," Sparkman said. "A lot of these news articles give the appearance that we are just now getting started as a tribe. They are untrue. We have always maintained our own identity while we have been in Oklahoma. Its not like we are establishing a new tribe.

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"There is a point that we would like to make. This land has always been Shawnee land. It has never been a part of Kansas," Sparkman said. "The news articles are promoting the fact that we can't wait to get up there and we can't wait to start gambling. At sometime in the future, we will take a look at it. But right now they are trying to say it is our priority and that isn't true. We have a lot of work to do before we can even look at that."

Newton McNeer, an original allottee, refused to leave his land in Kansas during the removal of the Shawnee to Oklahoma. Unlike members of the Delaware Tribe, forced to choose between their land and their tribal membership, he retained not only his allotted land, but his tribal membership.

Sparkman said he believed that there were around 38 heirs to the original McNeer allotment.

"I don't know if this is a true statement, but visualize this," Sparkman said. "There were approximately 2 million acres of Shawnee land there. Then you had this family and one other family, called the Black Snake family who refused to give up their land and they fought for it. I'm sure somewhere some government official said, 'We've taken 2 million acres, let them stay.' That must have been what happened."

Shawnee Reserve 206 brings many interesting questions into play as to possible future use. BIA officials believe it could possibly come under the jurisdiction of the Shawnee Tribe since federal recognition, but also said it would have to meet the requirements in the Indian gaming act as far as ownership and control by the tribe.

There is also a question about some of the heirs, non-tribal members who are enrolled elsewhere. On top of all of that, the Horton Field Office of the BIA said that before the land could be leased or sold, not only would approval have to come from the BIA, but also from each and every heir of Shawnee Reserve 206.

Sparkman said he believed the land had trust status. But BIA representatives said the land isn't actually considered trust land under the legal definition. Whether or not it will be given that status remains to be seen. Kansas state officials confirmed that the land has never been taxed by the state.

"It doesn't have the same Indian country status as if it were on a reservation or adjacent to one. Currently it's without tribal jurisdiction," said BIA Central Office Program Analyst Eric Wilson.

Although it isn't impossible for the Shawnee to gain control over the Johnson County land, there would be obstacles.

Antoinette Houle, realty specialist at the Horton office, explained the status of the land owned by the Shawnee heirs.

"A fee patent was issued to an Indian individual of the Loyal Shawnee. The fee patent has certain restrictions. It cannot be sold without the permission of the BIA. The owners can't sell or convey without approval from the BIA. Trust status of Indian land like this has the federal government's name on the title.

"It is restricted land," Houle said. "The trust land usually has a tribe exercising jurisdiction over trust land. The Indian gaming act requires that some tribe exercises jurisdiction over the land before a casino can be put on there. Since there is no tribal interest on these two tracts, I don't know how they could put a casino on it.

"The main thing is the trust land is usually within the boundaries of a certain tribe and the tribe is exercising jurisdiction over them. The restricted status is land that is held by tribal members and they hold the jurisdiction over that. You can have restricted land that a tribe exerts jurisdiction's not impossible, but that is the difference between restricted and trust land."

Houle said she wasn't sure if the status of the land would change or not because of the recognition. "Anything's possible, but the tribe would have to have to exert jurisdiction over it."

BIA representatives at Horton said they had not received anything that would change the status or jurisdiction of the property.

Houle did say that before the land could be leased for a possible casino, all the owners, including the federal government, would have to agree.

For now Shawnee officials say they just want to get down to the business of everyday tribal government, making life better for tribal members.

"I want to say this again. They are all concerned about this piece of property," Sparkman said. "As a tribe, right now we aren't looking at this. We've got other things here to establish."