From left: Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin (R), Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke and Shawnee Tribe Chief Ron Sparkman in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on January 19, 2018. Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior

Shawnee Tribe secures historic approval for off-reservation homelands

After nearly two decades of delays and setbacks, the Shawnee Tribe finally has a place to call home.

During a ceremony in Oklahoma City on Friday, Chief Ron Sparkman accepted approval of the tribe's land-into-trust application in Oklahoma. The acquisition of the 103-acre parcel is not only historic, it's unusual in that the tribe's new homelands are more than 400 miles from its headquarters in the northeastern part of the state.

But Secretary Ryan Zinke of the Department of the Interior acknowledged the unique circumstances facing the tribe. Federal law limits the areas in Oklahoma where the Shawnees -- who have been without a reservation for more than a century -- could establish a land base, the Trump administration said.

That's all changing with the approval of the application. The tribe plans to build a gaming facility on the site, a project that Zinke said will create significant economic opportunities in a rural area of the state.

“I want to thank Secretary Zinke for approving the Shawnee Tribe’s application to put land into trust, which will provide the Shawnee people with their first land base in well over a century,” Sparkman said in a press release distributed by the department.

“We’ve worked hard to set ourselves on the path to a better future, and this project will help us achieve our goals of tribal self-sufficiency through economic progress,” Sparkman added.

Artist's rendering of the proposed Golden Mesa Casino in Guymon, Oklahoma. Image: Shawnee Tribe Environmental Assessment

Accolades aside, the Golden Mesa Casino sat in limbo for a year, because of the Trump administration. Even though the tribe had cleared most major hurdles for the project, including approval from the governor of Oklahoma, Zinke and his political aides delayed final approval of the application for all of 2017.

Zinke himself raised questions about the land-into-trust process during his first appearance before Congress after being confirmed as the Secretary of the Interior.

"There's great inconsistency and, to date, the process is unclear to me," Zinke told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs last March, when asked specifically about the Shawnee casino. "I'll get to the bottom of it."

As the months dragged on without a decision, Jim Cason, the Associate Deputy Secretary at Interior, and John Tahsuda, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, separately confirmed that the department was still reviewing the application.

"While a decision on that acquisition is pending with the department, Interior is committed to reviewing all factors and seeking broad input in its decision making," Tahsuda, a citizen of the Kiowa Tribe who is the top political official at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said in Congressional testimony last October.

The delay was all the more notable because the Trump team, last July, rejected two off-reservation applications in Michigan. A letter signed by Cason pointed out that the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians was seeking one site about 260 miles from its headquarters and a second site about 305 miles away.

The new administration then dropped a bomb by proposing changes to the land-into-trust process that tribes say will make it impossible for them to acquire lands away from existing reservations. After an uproar in Indian Country, the BIA delayed the roll-out of the Fee-to-Trust Regulations (25 CFR 151) but consultations resumed this week. Meetings run through February 22 and written comments are due by February 28.

The Shawnee Tribe won't be affected by any changes, though, because its application has been approved.

A copy of the land-into-trust approval letter for the Shawnee Tribe. Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior

“One of my top priorities for the Department of the Interior is to make tribal sovereignty meaningful, and that includes providing the basis for tribes to build and strengthen their economies,” Zinke said on Friday. "This gaming facility will create 200 jobs and bring in $30 million annually to the tribe.”

Previously, the tribe secured approval for the casino by following the two-part determination provisions of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. The process requires approval from both the BIA and the state of Oklahoma -- Gov. Mary Fallin (R), who was on hand for the signing ceremony, had given her blessing nearly a year ago. The last hurdle was the land-into-trust application.

“I concur with the Secretary of the Interior’s determination that the Shawnee Tribe’s proposal will provide economic development to the Guymon and surrounding area," Fallin said in the department's press release. "This will also benefit the Shawnee Tribe in helping it develop a funding source as it works toward self-determination and self-governance.”

Guymon is located in the rural Panhandle region of Oklahoma. Though it's considerably far from the tribe's headquarters in Miami, a market analysis predicted that gamblers would come from larger population centers in Amarillo, Texas, and Dodge City, Kansas. Both municipalities are about 2 hours away from Guymon.

Indianz.Com on Google Maps: Shawnee Tribe Homelands in Oklahoma

The tribe turned to the Panhandle after efforts to open a casino closer to Miami ran into significant political and local opposition. A prior project was rejected by the BIA during the Obama administration after generating controversy during the Bush years. Because of that, Congress made it even tougher by imposing additional hurdles on the tribe's land acquisitions.

Even before that, the tribe wasn't even acknowledged as its own sovereign government, having been considered a part of the much larger Cherokee Nation since the late 1800s. That changed when Congress restored the tribe's federal recognition in 2000.

“I congratulate Chief Sparkman, the Shawnee tribal council, and tribal members for achieving this important goal,” Tahsuda said on Friday. “Their efforts to create greater economic prosperity for themselves and their future generations, combined with the approval of their fee-to-trust application, underscore the Secretary’s determination that tribal sovereignty must mean something.”

The Shawnee Tribe has been working with a subsidiary of the Chickasaw Nation on the project. The Chickasaws operate more casinos than any other tribe in Oklahoma and in the United States. Chickasaw Gov. Bill Anoatubby also was present for the signing ceremony.

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