United Keetoowah closes bingo hall because of dispute over status of land

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. - In a move to stop a possible SWAT-type raid on its Tahlequah Bingo Hall, the United Keetoowah Band (UKB) has closed its gaming operation indefinitely.

Whether the land under the bingo hall is considered to be 'Indian country' is at the heart of the issue. Sources close to the tribe say the leadership believes a long-standing rift between the band and the Cherokee Nation is more than partially to blame for the questions arising in regard to the legal definition of the land in question.

The UKB directed all questions to Janice Purcell, a tribal member and attorney contracted by the tribe. She said she believes the Cherokee Nation is at the root of the problem.

"Their general counsel contacted the attorney general, NIGC (the National Indian Gaming Commission) and all of our vendors and said we weren't on Indian land."

Kurt Morgan, general counsel for the state of Oklahoma Alcoholic Beverage Laws Enforcement (ABLE) Commission confirmed the contact with the commission.

"I think that our agents did have some contact from the Cherokee Nation," Morgan said. "I don't know if they are the original ones who got it stirred up or what. They may very well be because they are up there in Tahlequah and I guess it is an internal fight or something."

Mike Miller, communications coordinator for the Cherokee Nation, said that although the question had been raised by tribal members about the land issue, he was not aware of any one in particular who contacted the beverage commission or its agents.

"Regardless of who raised it, the issue is a valid one to everyone in Indian country," Miller said. "Every tribe in the country has to jump through hoops to make sure their gaming facilities are on the right kind of land. The Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee and every tribe with gaming have to jump through these hoops. We want to know if we really still have to or if there are exceptions being made. If there are, why? Are there reasons for exceptions to be made?"

Although Purcell acknowledged the land wasn't in trust, she said there was a good reason. "Part of the reason it isn't in trust is because Cherokee Nation has taken the position that they need to consent for any of our property to be in trust because we're within the 14-county jurisdictional area of the Cherokee Nation.

"However, we are a federally recognized tribe and we were organized pursuant to the Oklahoma Welfare Act and federally recognized in 1950 in comparison to 1973 when the Cherokee Nation was recognized. They did not reorganize. We came over here prior to the Trail of Tears and we have a blood quantum requirement of one-fourth or more."

Miller said it is true the Cherokee Nation has to consent for the UKB to take land into trust. "There was no UKB land or UKB restricted land at the time of allotment. It's all Cherokee land," Miller said.

"The land within the 14 counties is Cherokee trust land and we're not going to give up any more sovereignty rights to any more land. We're not going to start piecing things out to different groups and say 'You can be in charge of these two or three acres ... '"

Purcell said the biggest problem the band faces is funding for its 7,000 members. "The federal government, whenever they allocate funds in excess of $150 million to the Cherokee Nation, those funds are also supposed to be allocated to the Keetoowahs and we don't see any of those funds. Our revenues come from bingo and gaming, so effectively what they have tried to do is shut us down. You know we are the more traditional tribe."

Miller said the Cherokee Nation didn't receive any checks made out to the UKB and money received by the Cherokee Nation was specifically for its own programs. "We do get federal funds and so do they, for example their housing authority, along with other programs that they administer and we aren't trying to shut them down," Miller said. "Members of the UKB are almost all related to members of the Cherokee Nation. They are our families."

The bingo hall is on the same land as UKB headquarters, but does that constitute Indian country? Not according to a Sept. 29, 2000, letter to the UKB by National Indian Gaming Commission General Counsel Kevin Washburn. His conclusion: "Because we have determined that the UKB does not have jurisdiction over the gaming sites, we must conclude that the UKB does not have the requisite authority to ensure the appropriate control and management of its gaming operation. After careful review and consideration, I conclude that the lands on which the UKB is gaming are not Indian lands over which the UKB has jurisdiction. Thus, such activity is not subject to the IGRA. I leave the question of whether the land is subject to state gambling laws to the appropriate state officials."

Although Purcell was told by representatives of the NIGC that the letter was an advisory only, the state of Oklahoma has taken the commission stand seriously. When the very real possibility of confiscation and possible criminal indictments were facing it, Purcell said closing the bingo hall was the most responsible thing for the tribe to do.

Fearing lawsuits from vendors and patrons and a possible Dec. 11 raid, the UKB closed the hall in early December. "Somebody had started putting pressure on the state," Purcell said.

"We're a small tribe. We're not getting any federal dollars. We really need the money. By shutting down the bingo hall there are at least 70 employees out there who are without a job right now."

Purcell also said that all the money made from the bingo hall has gone back in to support services for tribal members.

In part, a letter from Morgan to Ms. Purcell, Morgan stated, "As you know, the state of Oklahoma does not regulate Indian bingo establishments ... After receiving a copy of Mr. Washburn's letter, it appeared to the ABLE Commission that it would be necessary to issue a criminal citation to the hall for illegal gambling. Apparently someone told the hall of this possibility ... ."

He further stated that since the UKB had voluntarily shut its doors, no further action would be taken against the tribe.

In a telephone interview, Morgan said for the time being the commission is awaiting determination of the status of the UKB bingo hall land.

"We're not doing anything right now. There is a question on whether or not it is Indian country. If it's not Indian country, they can't play bingo without a getting a charity games license."

Morgan also said that although the commission contemplated a possible raid on the bingo hall at one time, issues of jurisdiction and the lack of cross-deputization could have put the agents involved at risk for lawsuits.

Even if the land isn't determined to be "Indian country," Morgan said the band has some options. "There is a little bit of a problem because the Oklahoma non-Indian gaming is charity gaming. You have to have, in effect, a federally qualified charitable or non-profit organization that has been in operation for two years. I don't know if they have something like that or not. If they do, they could get one immediately. If not, they would have to form one and wait two years."

Morgan also said profits can be just as high or higher with the state license, but he wasn't sure if the casino would be competitive with nearby Indian gaming because of the less valuable prizes offered at non-Indian gaming parlors.

A BIA decision may be the determining factor in whether the bingo hall reopens.

Dennis Wickcliffe, BIA acting regional director in Muskogee, said the BIA is still trying to make a determination. "Right now we're looking at the situation."

He added that it wasn't the BIA that forced the closure, and no further comment would be available for the time.

The entire land issue becomes more confusing because the UKB holds a gaming license from the NIGC, even though the commission doesn't recognize the land the bingo hall is on and has said control over the hall should be in the hand of the state of Oklahoma.

Purcell said the band's lack of money would make it even more difficult to fight the battle over land definition in court. It has a request to the BIA for trust status on the 2.6 acres under the tribal headquarters, membership office, tag office, bingo hall and administrative program buildings. There has been no decision so far.