BIA indicates Tohono O'odham Nation can use land for gaming

Artist's rendering of the proposed West Valley Resort. Image from Tohono O'odham Nation

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee jumped into the controversy over the Tohono O'odham Nation off-reservation casino for the first time on Wednesday.

The committee heard from both sides of the issue at a lengthy oversight hearing on Indian gaming. Two lawmakers, two tribal leaders and a local official presented competing and heated arguments about the legality of the proposed West Valley Resort in the Phoenix metro area.

"I can feel the emotion up here," observed Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), the chairman of the committee, near the end of the hearing.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs has agreed to place the tribe's site in trust. The agency hasn't determined whether the land can be used for gaming but Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn said a federal judge's ruling appears to clear the way for a casino there.

"I'm not sure that we need to do anything further with regard to an Indian lands determination," Washburn told Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona).

However, Washburn said the tribe still needs to ask the National Indian Gaming Commission for a facility license. At that point, an Indian lands determination will likely be required, he noted.

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, generally, bars gaming on land acquired after 1988. But Section 20 of the law creates an exception for land acquired in connection with a land claim settlement.

The Tohono O'odham Nation appears to qualify due to the Gila Bend Indian Reservation Lands Replacement Act of 1986. The law allows the tribe to have up to 10,000 acres placed in trust to replace lands that were flooded by the federal government.

But a bill in Congress -- H.R.1410, the Keep the Promise Act -- would kill the project. The law doesn't mention the Tohono O'odham Nation but it bars Class II or Class III gaming on any newly acquired lands in the metro Phoenix area.

The House passed the bill in September. McCain (R-Arizona) said the measure faces an uncertain future in the Senate due to legal decisions favoring the tribe and the city of Glendale's new-found support for the project.

The hearing lasted about 2 hours and 5 minutes. Audio can be found on the Indianz.Com SoundCloud.

Get the Story:
Tribal, Glendale officials in West Valley Casino fight testify to Senate panel (Cronkite News 7/23)
After growth, Indian gaming now "pretty flat" (Casino City Times 7/24)

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Audio: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing on gaming (7/23)
Editorial: Progress on Tohono O'odham Nation gaming plan (7/22)

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