Dancers at a Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians powwow. Photo: Jim Grey

Pokagon Band secures historic approval to restore homeland in Indiana

The Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians will be making history with the first tribal casino in Indiana.

The tribe's land-into-trust application for a 166-acre site in South Bend was approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs on November 18. A letter from Larry Roberts, the top official at the agency, notes the landmark nature of the acquisition.

"The tribe's journey to this point has been a difficult one," Roberts wrote. "Our nation's history with your tribe has not always been honorable."

For more than a century, the federal government refused to recognize the tribe even though its leaders had signed treaties and engaged in government-to-government relations with the United States. The situation finally changed when Congress restored the tribe's status in 1994.

But Roberts noted that while the law requires the BIA to re-establish the tribe's homeland in both Indiana and Michigan, the process has been slow moving. So the approval of the South Bend application marks a new chapter in the relationship between the two sovereigns.

Documents filed with the Bureau of Indian Affairs outlined the Pokagon Band's plans for the site in South Bend, Indiana. Image: Pokagon EIS

The tribe envisions a $400 million development at the site, which is located within the service area defined by Congress. Plans call for a casino, a hotel and village that would include housing for tribal members.

The tribe, though, has not negotiated a Class III gaming compact with the state of Indiana. With Gov. Mike Pence (R) headed to the White House as the vice president to Donald Trump, that task will presumably fall to Eric Holcomb, who won election on November 8. He served as lieutenant governor under Pence.

When the tribe filed the application more than two years ago, it generated significant controversy, especially from state lawmakers whose districts include non-Indian casinos. But the tribe has won local support for the project and there appears to be little opponents could do at this point to stop the acquisition of the land.

The tribe operates three casinos in Michigan under the Four Winds name. The flagship facility is located in New Buffalo, just a few miles from the Indiana border and about 32 miles from the South Bend site.

The tribe has scheduled a press conference next Tuesday to announce its next steps in the journey.

Federal Register Notices:
Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Proposed Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians Fee-to-Trust Transfer for Tribal Village and Casino, City of South Bend, St. Joseph County, Indiana (March 12, 2015)
Notice of Intent To Prepare an Environmental Impact Statement for the Proposed Pokagon Band Tribal Village Fee-to-Trust Acquisition and Casino Project in the City of South Bend, St. Joseph County, IN (August 24, 2012)

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