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United Keetoowah torn over election, gaming site

TAHLEQAH, Okla. - Can you have an American Indian gaming facility in Oklahoma on land that is not in trust?

That appears to be a question no one wants to answer or can answer in the case of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee.

In the midst of an intertribal battle over leadership, following last year's election, the tribe's Class II gaming facility remains open on land which is not in trust. So far no one has been able to say whether the facility is under any type of regulatory authority.

In a Sept. 29, 2000, letter, the National Indian Gaming Commission stated the tribe's gaming operation wasn't on trust land and therefore wasn't under its regulations. The facility closed for a short period of time. After it was re-opened this past spring, a source close to the tribe said, "We just decided to open it." And open it they did, despite allegations the facility is unregulated because of the non-trust status of the land.

"As you know, a question has arisen as to whether the land on which the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians is conducting gaming is Indian lands as defined by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and National Indian Gaming Commission regulations," the letter read.

"Absent such a determination, there is a serious question as to whether the IGRA or state gambling laws apply to the gaming activities conducted on such land. We conclude that the lands on which the UKB is conducting gaming are not Indian lands over which the UKB has jurisdiction. Accordingly, the UKB's gaming activity is not subject to the IGRA."

Although it may sound like a simple determination, it hasn't been. Mike Smith, acting Muskogee Area BIA director, said the land where the UKB's gaming facility is located was considered "Indian Country" because it is within the jurisdictional area of the Cherokee Nation. However, he added the land under the facility and the UKB tribal headquarters is not trust land. Smith added that an application was filed in April by the UKB to put the 2.6 acres into trust, but so far that hasn't happened.

Tax records back up the fact the land is not in trust - taxes have been paid to the county since the tribe bought the land in 1992.

Confusion over who was elected to which office in the 2000 election has made it difficult to find out how the tribal gaming facility is able to remain open on non-trust land, not only for reporters, but for state and federal officials as well.

So, what is the status of the land? The commission letter states that it is not trust land and therefore not under its jurisdiction or the regulations of the IGRA.

State officials said at one point they were waiting for a BIA determination. BIA representatives said the land isn't trust land, is considered Indian Country, but the BIA doesn't regulate the gaming facility.

Calls to the state attorney general's office further muddied the waters on the legality of the gaming facility legality. A spokesperson said the office is trying to determine if the tribe has applied for a state license and said it would look into whether the tribe is under any gaming regulatory authority or is operating illegally under state law.

Attempts to reach the UKB's tribal headquarters for comment have gone unanswered. Fallout from the contested 2000 election left many wondering, "who's in charge."

While protests were being filed, the tribal government in place stayed in place. Some observers in the Tahlequah area said that every week saw a newly elected official being sworn in, but the "old" tribal leaders continued day-to-day business in spite of swearing in celebrations.

The battle for leadership of the tribe continued as the tribe's bank began questioning who was legally supposed to sign checks for the tribe. The bank requested help from the Oklahoma District Court.

Chief District Judge Bruce Sewell closed the UKB government down for a brief period in August as he tried to sort out the mess. By then a former UKB employee had been accused of moving the tribal telephone to her residence and intercepting UKB mail, even though she supposedly was not even a member of the UKB.

The employee and the former counsel for the tribe were named in a lawsuit that asked for a restraining order to stop the pair from taking action with banking institutions, the U.S. Postal Service and Southwestern Bell Telephone Co., alleging that the pair held themselves out to be persons with positions of authority within the UKB government.

Legal wrangling and court decisions regarding who sits on the legal tribal council may have finally come to an end, Smith said. The BIA sent a letter which officially recognizes Chief Dallas Proctor, Vice Chief Stephen Mouse, Secretary Ernestine Berry, Treasurer Julie Moss and council members Al Slagle, Cliff Wofford, Adalene Proctor Smith, Frank Simmer, Charles Deason, Susan Adair, Roberta Smoke, Henry Dreadfulwater and Betty Holcomb as the official tribal government.