The Rosebud Sioux Tribe owns and operates the Rosebud Casino in Rosebud, South Dakota. Photo: Rosebud Casino

New Bureau of Indian Affairs leader takes action on gaming

The new leader of the Bureau of Indian Affairs might have been kept out of view by the Trump administration in recent weeks but that doesn't mean she hasn't been working on big issues.

Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney put her name to two documents that were published in the Federal Register on Wednesday. Both dealt with gaming, an issue that she has not had much experience with, since her home state of Alaska has largely been left out of the $32 billion and growing industry.

In one of the notices, Sweeney approved an extension to the Class III gaming compact between the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and the state of South Dakota. The two parties have repeatedly extended their agreement -- the latest in fact marks the 12th of its kind since 2012, according to a review of past documents.

The compact now expires January 23, 2019. The extension gives the tribe and the state more time to talk about changes they might make to the agreement.

In the second notice, Sweeney allowed the Class III gaming compact between the Elk Valley Rancheria and the state of California to take effect. That means the agreement is considered legal, but only to the extent that its provisions are consistent with the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

A "deemed approved" compact is common in situations where the BIA might have concerns about particular provisions, especially ones that address issues not covered by IGRA, such as mitigating the "environmental" impacts of a casino. But the agency typically defers to tribes before outright rejecting their negotiated deals.

The Elk Valley Rancheria owns and operates the Elk Valley Casino in Crescent City, California. Photo: Elk Valley Casino

Both documents were signed by Sweeney, who is the first Alaska Native to serve as the Assistant Secretary, on August 9. They are the BIA's first published notices that bear her name -- the most recent published notice was signed by John Tahsuda, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs.

Sweeney was confirmed to her post, a political one at the Department of the Interior on June 28. She is the first woman to serve as the Assistant Secretary in two decades.

Sweeney began working on July 30, according to one tribal advocate, but the Trump administration did not announce her arrival until Indianz.Com repeatedly inquired about her whereabouts. A press release was finally disseminated on Thursday morning.

“Tara is a results-driven team leader and coalition builder who has an impressive combination of business acumen and service to her community,” Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke said in the release. “Her lifelong active engagement in Native American policy development and her outreach, advocacy, and organization skills are the combination we need to carry out the President’s reform initiative for Indian Country. She will be a great asset to the department."

“I am honored to be able to serve Indian Country in this capacity,” Sweeney said. “My goal is to develop strong relationships with tribes, Alaska Native corporations, and Native Hawaiian organizations to work on innovative solutions for lifting up our communities.”

Sweeney was not asked any questions directly about Indian gaming during her confirmation hearing on May 9. The issue has typically been controversial for prior nominees, whether Republican or Democrat.

Sweeney was asked about land-into-trust, the process by which tribes reacquire their homelands and, in some instances, open casinos on those lands. She said she was not too familiar with it, an unsurprising answer since land-into-trust didn't become available to tribes in Alaska until the Obama administration and only after tribes initiated litigation.

The Trump administration -- on the day after Sweeney was confirmed but before she took office -- announced it was putting a hold on land-into-trust in Alaska pending further review. The BIA began holding meetings with tribes before Sweeney took office in late July. Three have taken place so far -- Sweeney was not present at any of them.

Upcoming sessions are taking place in Anchorage on October 17 and October 21, in Bethel on December 5 and in Kotzebue on December 7. Land-into-trust and federal recognition of tribes in Alaska under the Indian Reorganization Act will be discussed at different times on those dates.

Additionally, the BIA is holding two telephone conferences on Wednesday, December 12, 2018, to discuss the same issues. The call about federal recognition takes place from 10am to noon, to be followed by a discussion about land-into-trust from 1pm to 3pm. The call-in number for both sessions is 877-716-4291, with the passcode: 6919058.

Federal Register Notices
Indian Gaming; Extension of Tribal-State Class III Gaming Compact (Rosebud Sioux Tribe and the State of South Dakota) (August 15, 2018)
Indian Gaming; Tribal-State Class III Gaming Compact Taking Effect in the State of California (August 15, 2018)

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