Ponca Tribe secures victory in long-running battle over restoration of homelands

Gaming agency sides with Ponca Tribe again
By Kevin Abourezk

Correction: The tribe’s announcement on Tuesday took place in Omaha, Nebraska, not Lincoln.

A nearly decade-long battle for the descendants of Ponca Chief Standing Bear may be nearing the finish line after the National Indian Gaming Commission backed the tribe’s plans for a casino near the largest city in Nebraska.

“This has been a marathon, and not one that I care to have again,” Larry Wright Jr., the chairman of the Ponca Tribe, said in an occasionally emotional speech on Tuesday.

“But I’ve also said that I’ll take a slow yes to a fast no,” Wright told tribal citizens who gathered in Omaha for the celebratory announcement.

Almost 10 years ago, Wright noted that the tribe secured the right to open a casino on a 4.8-acre parcel of trust land in Carter Lake, Iowa. Litigation from the states of Nebraska and Iowa, however, kept the project from moving forward.

But in a new decision issued on Monday, the NIGC again confirmed that the site is eligible for gaming due to the tribe’s unique history. Even though Chief Standing Bear had to fight for his people’s right to return to Nebraska in the late 1800s, the federal government terminated its relationship with the tribe in the 1960s.

The slight was corrected when the tribe was restored to recognition by an act of Congress in 1990. As a result, the site in Carter Lake qualifies for gaming as “restored lands,” the NIGC ruled.

“The commission recognizes that all tribes have unique histories that must be considered on a case-by-case basis when making these decisions,” Jonodev Chaudhuri, the chairman of the federal gaming agency, said in a news release.

Geoff Greenwood, spokesman for Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, said his office is reviewing the commission’s decision.

“We’re reviewing the decision and considering our options,” he said, declining further comment.

Suzanne Gage, spokeswoman for Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson, said her office also would review the decision.

“That is news to me,” she said Tuesday after being informed of the NIGC’s decision.

The tribe acquired the property in 1999 and the Bureau of Indian Affairs placed it in trust in February 2003.

Generally, land acquired after the passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988 cannot be used for gaming. But the law contains exceptions, including the one for “restored lands.”

The NIGC originally sided with the tribe in a December 31, 2007 decision. At the time, the agency rejected claims from the state of Iowa that the tribe agreed not to use the land for a casino.

The states of Iowa and Nebraska and the city of Council Bluffs, Iowa, subsequently challenged the commission’s 2007 decision in court.

A federal judge eventually ruled that the NIGC lacked the authority to make the decision. But the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and gave the agency another chance to consider the matter.

The 8th Circuit said the NIGC should have taken the purported agreement with Iowa into account . But that agreement isn’t valid and can’t be used to stop the tribe from gaming under the restored lands exception in IGRA, the new decision stated.

“Since this matter was remanded, the commission coordinated and consulted with the Department of the Interior and heard from all interested parties through the additional briefing,” NIGC Vice Chair Kathryn Isom-Clause said. “As a result, I am confident that today’s decision is both thorough and well-reasoned.”

The commission also ruled the Ponca Restoration Act doesn’t limit the tribe’s restored lands to only Knox and Boyd counties in Nebraska. Carter Lake is in Pottawattamie County, Iowa, which is also considered to be a part of the tribe’s service area.

Though Carter Lake is located in Iowa, it is physically surrounded by Nebraska due to the shifting nature of the Missouri River. It’s less than a mile from Omaha’s Eppley Airfield, which sees more than 4 million passengers every year.

The city is also less than five minutes from downtown Omaha, a metropolitan region that’s home to more than 900,000 people. The tribe currently operates a smoke shop on the land, which enjoys easy access to Interstate 29.

Pat Loontjer of Gambling With the Good Life, an anti-gambling organization in Nebraska, said Tuesday she was disappointed with the NIGC’s ruling.

“It’s going to devastate Carter Lake and downtown Omaha,” she said.

Wright, who at one point during his remarks was nearly moved to tears, said the NIGC’s decision will pave the way for economic development for the tribe and give the Ponca people the opportunity to provide for its less fortunate members.

“It means self-sufficiency for our people, for all those that suffered when our tribe was terminated,” he said. “Let’s put our money toward our culture, our language, true self-sufficiency, true sovereignty.”