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BIA caught in debate over off-reservation gaming

The Bush administration won't adopt a "blanket" policy on off-reservation gaming, a top Bureau of Indian Affairs official said on Tuesday.

In testimony before the House Resources Committee, principal deputy assistant secretary Aurene Martin said officials take off-reservation casino proposals very seriously. Currently, the Department of Interior is being asked to allow gaming on land far away from existing reservations. In some cases, tribes are looking at other states.

"This issue has received considerable attention within the department," Martin testified.

But despite the growing and controversial practice, a one-size-fits-all approach won't work, Martin said yesterday. Just last month, she had told the committee that department officials were considering a "blanket" policy to help guide decision-making in the future.

"We ultimately determined that adopting a blanket policy would not be appropriate because each application is different and the situation of each tribe, with respect to the local community and the state in which it is located, is unique," Martin said.

The BIA looks at off-reservation gaming proposals on a "case-by-case" basis, Martin said. Historical and cultural ties to the land, local and state support and other issues mean the agency acts "very conservatively."

"Contrary to popular belief, tribes cannot simply buy a parcel of land anywhere and set up a gaming establishment," Martin said.

The BIA's approach to the issue drew some criticism at the hearing. Rep. Jim McCrery (R-Louisiana) said the agency hasn't been consistent in evaluating the Jena Choctaw Band's request for a reservation in his state. The tribe wants to open a casino on the land.

"The question is, should we allow an indian tribe with no historical rights in those areas, no tribal ties established in those areas to just willy nilly go into competition with tax paying for profit entities," he said. "I don't think that's a good idea."

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) accused the BIA of dragging its feet with regard to an Oklahoma tribe's out-of-state casino. He said calls to Secretary Gale Norton, her deputy J. Steven Griles and Martin went unanswered.

"Every one of you told me, 'I'll get back to you when I have more information,'" he recalled. "This has been six months -- actually a year."

As a result, Young said, the Wyandotte Nation was "screwed" over by the government. "There was great injustice that occurred in Kansas that I do not appreciate," he said. In April, state officials raided the tribe's downtown Kansas City casino even though it is located on Indian land.

"I just think someone has dropped the ball," Young said.

Other witnesses at the hearing said the BIA acted cautiously due to inexperience but also out of concern for tribes. While approval for off-reservation casinos is "cumbersome", Ernie Stevens, chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association, said it was a necessary process.

"To say that this is reservation shopping ... or there's an explosion of gaming ... is certainly not an appropriate analogy," he told the committee. He cited three examples of off-reservation gaming where the tribes and local communities have had positive experiences.

The hearing was called to help determine whether existing law needs to be changed to reflect some of the concerns. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), passed in 1988, includes a section outlining the cases in which off-reservation gaming is appropriate.

Christine Norris, principal chief of the Jena Band of Choctaws, said the tribe wasn't seeking an amendment to IGRA. But she said the government should hold the BIA and the state accountable. Under U.S. Supreme Court precedents, the state can ignore the tribe's position without fear of a lawsuit.

"We were received with closed doors everywhere we met, we were met with opposition," she testified. Even though the Choctaws, as a recently recognized tribe without a land base, satisfy an important exception in IGRA, they are now going through a lengthy process just to obtain an initial reservation.

Leaford Bearskin, chief of the Wyandotte Nation, didn't think changes to IGRA were necessary either. But he wanted lawmakers to affirm another law, passed specifically for the tribe, that he said would clear up the dispute over the legality of the Kansas City casino.

"Over the years, the Wyandottes have signed 19 treaties with the U.S. government," he told the committee. "There are 19 that have been broken, but not by us."

Earlier this year, Martin said lawmakers might try to amend IGRA in order to respond to complaints about off-reservation gaming. So far, no effort has emerged although the Interior Department's appropriations bill, the most likely place for a rider, is still pending in the Senate. The bill passed the House without any major anti-Indian provisions.