The Chickasaw Nation owns and operates the Winstar World Casino and Resort in Thackerville, Oklahoma. Based on gaming floor space, the casino is the largest casino in the United States. Photo: Chickasaw Nation

Oklahoma tribes won casino approvals on last day of Obama administration

Two tribes won approval for new casinos in Oklahoma on the last full day of the Obama administration but the Trump team held up the official announcements for six months.

The Chickasaw Nation won approval for two casinos while the Cherokee Nation won approval for one, according to notices published in the Federal Register on Tuesday. Both decisions were made by Larry Roberts, the former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, on January 19.

When asked about the long wait for the information to become public, a Bureau of Indian Affairs spokesperson said the Trump administration has been reviewing decisions made during the last few months of the Obama era.

"The Secretary had asked everything be brought up to his level for review," spokesperson Nedra Darling said of Secretary Ryan Zinke, the new leader of the Department of the Interior.

While tribes have asked the new administration not to erect roadblocks in the land-into-trust process, Darling insisted there was no policy motivation behind the Chickasaw and Cherokee delays. The Trump team initiated similar reviews at other Interior agencies as it was getting up to speed on the issues facing the department, she said.

"It's not just us, it's the whole department," Darling said.

But the Chickasaws were clearly not worried about the wait. The tribe broke ground on a $10 million casino in Terral in May -- Indianz.Com even published the deed, which indicated that the BIA approved the application on January 19.

The other site that was placed in trust for the Chickasaws is near the town of Willis, where a casino has been rumored for years. Last fall, the tribe also announced plans for a large resort at a nearby site and submitted a land-into-trust application there too.

In the case of the Cherokees, the tribe was already operating a casino in Roland when the BIA acquired additional properties where a $80 million expansion project, which included a new hotel, and a travel plaza are located. The site was the home of the tribe's first bingo hall, which opened back in 1990.

The Cherokee Nation owns and operates the Cherokee Casino and Hotel Roland in Roland, Oklahoma. Photo: Cherokee Casino & Hotel Roland

Still, the last-minute decisions feed into fears among other tribes in Oklahoma about preferential treatment for larger and politically-connected Indian nations like the Chickasaws and the Cherokees. The Chickasaws in particular are known for gaining speedy approvals of their land-into-trust applications, which has enabled them to open more casinos than other in the state and in the nation.

Generally, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act bars casinos on land placed in trust after 1988. But an exception in Section 20 of the law allows gaming on properties located within the boundaries a former reservation in Oklahoma.

The Chickasaws have utilized the exception repeatedly to expand their gaming empire. Back in 2003, Indianz.Com counted 11 facilities on lands acquired after 1988.

The tribe also enjoys a close relationship with the local and regional BIA offices. In the past, the offices have approved the tribe's land-into-trust applications after less than a month of review. In one instance, it looked like approval only took a day.

The Cherokees have utilized the exception as well, though with less frequency. The tribe offers gaming at 10 locations, far fewer than the 21 Chickasaw sites currently in operation.

Amid concerns raised by Republicans in Congress, the Trump administration erected a new hurdle for tribes seeking to acquire land away from existing reservations. These applications must be reviewed by political appointees in Washington, D.C., according to an April 6 memo first posted on the influential Turtle Talk blog.

"There's great inconsistency and, to date, the process is unclear to me," Zinke told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on March 8. "I'll get to the bottom of it."

The Chickasaw Nation's Terral deed bears the signature of a regional BIA official. But the notice published on Tuesday indicates that the BIA's central office in D.C., where Roberts was based at the time, played a role in reviewing the application.

"On January 19, 2017, the Assistant Secretary—Indian Affairs issued a decision to accept the Parcels, consisting of approximately 51.35 acres, more or less, of land in trust for the Nation, under the authority of the Indian Reorganization Act," the notice for the Terral parcel states. "The Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary—Indian Affairs determined that the Nation's request also meets the requirements of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act's 'Oklahoma exception,' 25 U.S.C. 2719(a)(2)(A)(i), to the general prohibition contained in 25 U.S.C. 2719(a) on gaming on lands acquired in trust after October 17, 1988."

Similar language was included in the other two notices published on Tuesday.

Federal Register Notices:
Land Acquisitions; The Chickasaw Nation [Terral Site] (July 18, 2017)
Land Acquisitions; The Chickasaw Nation [Willis Site] (July 18, 2017)
Land Acquisitions; The Cherokee Nation [Roland Casino Site] (July 18, 2017)

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