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Tribes take chances with far-away land acquisitions

When it comes to real estate, it's all about location, location, location. The same holds true in Indian Country, as dozens of tribes look for land hundreds of miles away from their current locations, sometimes in other states.

Critics deride this practice as reservation shopping and make it sound as simple as going to the grocery store. But as recent decisions have shown, not every tribe will make it through the checkout aisle. So here's a review and outlook of some of the more prominent examples of this trend.

The Oklahoma-based Miami Nation has been trying to re-establish its ties to a small reservation in Kansas that was allotted to a Miami infant in the 1800s. The Department of Interior, through former solicitor Bill Myers, rejected the claim. The matter is now in federal court.

Separately, the tribe sought land in Illinois that it claims was never ceded to the federal government. The lawsuit was dropped amid considerable local opposition but the tribe continues to pursue other avenues in the state.

In both states, the tribe would be able to offer Class III gaming, which is illegal in Oklahoma. But the tribe faces significant opposition in Kansas from the state and four tribes with casinos. In Illinois, members of Congress have threatened to block any tribe from returning.

The Kansas-based Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation has had no problems tapping into the state's Class III market but in recent years, the tribe has picked up its campaign to reclaim a 1,280-acre reservation in Illinois. A former Interior solicitor said the claim was credible but a formal ruling has not been made.

In the meantime, the tribe has purchased a small plot of land in Illinois and has floated plans for a casino resort. If DOI reaffirms the tribe's reservation, it would be hard to stop the tribe from moving forward. A compact would be needed for Class III gaming.

The Coast Miwok Tribe of California lost its small reservation when it was terminated in 1958. The tribe regained federal status in 2000 by an act of Congress, which authorized a restored reservation.

The tribe's land choices have been criticized but the law makes a land acquisition mandatory, meaning the Department of Interior can't refuse. Some members of Congress are threatening to invalidate this provision but the tribe is currently undergoing a public comment process in hopes of addressing local concerns. The outlook is positive but the tribe still needs to negotiate a compact with the state.

State law authorized three off-reservation casinos in the Catskills, hundreds of miles away from any existing reservation but only 90 minutes north of New York City.

So far, only the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe has gained approval, from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, to acquire Catskills land. But the Stockbridge Munsee Band of Mohicans from Wisconsin is hoping to strike a deal. The Cayuga Nation and the Oneida Nation, both based in New York, are also interested.

The outlook is good for the New York-based tribes provided they can endure the lengthy BIA review process. But it's not as good for the Mohicans. Gov. George Pataki (R) has somewhat loosened his opposition to working with out-of-state tribes but that doesn't necessarily translate into BIA approval.

Congress authorized return of land to the California-based Timbisha Shoshone Tribe, which regained federal recognition in 1983. But the land is in Death Valley, a place not exactly suitable for gaming. The law prohibits gaming there anyway.

The tribe has since staked a claim to land hundreds of miles from Death Valley in the city of Hesperia. The tribe says the city is within its aboriginal territory but there are some doubters.

It appears the tribe would have to go through the so-called two-part determination process to gain approval for this land. If the BIA approves the acquisition, the state governor would have to agree. The tribe has already won local voter approval, a significant step in this arduous process.

The Seneca-Cayuga Tribe is based in Oklahoma although its ancestors came from the Seneca and Cayuga nations in New York. The tribe is one of the parties in the 63,000-acre Cayuga land claim in New York which has been affirmed by the federal courts.

The tribe has since purchased land within its claim area and has plans for gaming and other economic activities. Local officials question the move but the tribe cites a decision favoring the Oneida Nation, a tribe with a similar land claim.

NIGC has been asked to review the Seneca-Cayuga's right to game in New York and the matter is also before a federal judge. Based on last week's Wyandotte Nation opinion, it appears the Seneca-Cayuga could satisfy the land claim exception in the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. But the opinion openly questioned whether any tribe could reassert sovereign rights in another state where it is not currently based.