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Colorado governor rejects casino for out-of-state tribes

The state of Colorado will not negotiate a casino deal with two Oklahoma tribes that have laid claim to 27 million acres of ancestral land, Gov. Bill Owens (R) said on Wednesday.

At a briefing before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, Owens took a strong stance against the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. Arguing that the tribes were already compensated for the land in question, he said he would not entertain a settlement.

"We believe this land claim was already resolved in the 1960s," Owens said, referring to a $15 million Indian Claims Commission judgment tribal members accepted.

Owens also said voters in Colorado have shown their opposition to an expansion of gaming even though the state has more than 40 private casinos and two tribally-owned ones. If the tribes and their "investor groups" want a casino, they should ask the people, he said.

"This casino is clearly not in the best interest of Colorado," Owens said.

Tribal representatives presented a different picture of their proposal to build a $150 million to $300 million destination resort near Denver. They said it was time to reclaim the homeland they were forced to leave in the late 1800s.

"Our history marks this land," said Bill Bride, vice-chairman of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes.

Making frequent reference to the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, in which more than 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho ancestors were killed by U.S. soldiers, Bride said a casino will end decades of poverty, despair and neglect. Tribal members currently suffer from 40 percent unemployment and their average income is just $6,000.

"The bottom line is the tribes are determined to change their future," added Steve Hillard of Council Tree Communications, the group leading the Homecoming Project.

The tribes did not dispute accepting a settlement for a Colorado-based land claim. But Darrell Flyingman, a tribal council member, said the continued suffering of the tribe warranted reopening of the case. "Would you sell Colorado for 2.75 cents an acre?" he asked Owens.

Hillard argued that the casino would resolve claims that were "outside the scope" of the ICC case. Citing the United States' trust responsibility to the tribes, he said the government must be held accountable for the "genocide" of the tribes.

But the talk drew objections from Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), who said he attended the briefing to learn more about the proposal. "You can talk about genocide or you can talk about the project," he said in the first of two short but testy exchanges with Hillard.

Later, McCain questioned why the tribes were willing to end their claim to 27 million acres in the eastern part of the state for just 500 acres. "I think it's realistic," offered Hillard.

"Then your claim isn't real," McCain responded.

The informal session was not a hearing yet still drew a capacity crowd. Paul Moorehead, the Republican staff director for the committee, said it was the first time a state governor attended a briefing. Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colorado) and Rep. Bob Beauprez (R-Colorado) also came to show their opposition to the casino.

"Let's be fair and let the people of Colorado decide," Allard said in reference to state voters rejecting more gaming.

Owens challenged Hillard to pledge not to seek assistance from Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, to advance the casino bid. The state's Congressional delegation, including Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colorado), said they would oppose any riders.

Hillard said he would agree if Owens and the state vowed not to seek counter-language in any appropriations bills. But Owens refused to commit and would not answer Hillard's query on the issue.

The backers of the project include four Alaska Native corporations, most notably Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, the state's wealthiest. ASRC executives enjoy close ties to Stevens and Hillard is said to be close with the senator. Last year, Stevens mysteriously filed a rider that would have allowed Alaska Native corporations to own casinos in the lower 48 and to be treated as tribes for the purposes of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988.

The law bars casinos on land acquired after 1988 but contains an exception for land claim settlements. "Our project is consistent with IGRA," said Bird.

McCain, though, said he was concerned about the way IGRA is being used today. The explosion of Indian gaming "has far exceeded anything we anticipated," he said.

Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colorado), chairman of the committee, did not attend the briefing nor did Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), the vice-chair. Campbell, who is retiring at the end of the year, is a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe of Montana.

Steve Brady, president of the Northern Cheyenne Sand Creek Descendants, said the Northern Cheyenne Tribe opposes the proposal. "We much feel Steve Hillard is here to exploit the pain and misery of the Cheyenne people for his own personal gain," he said.

Relevant Links:
Cheyenne-Arapaho Homecoming Project -