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Michigan tribe gets land-into-trust date in 2007

A Michigan tribe whose leaders have been waiting years to establish a reservation got one step closer to that goal on Thursday.

The Match-e-be-nash-she-wish Band of Pottawatomi, also known as the Gun Lake Tribe, announced that its land will finally be placed in trust on January 5, 2007. That means the tribe can build a casino on the initial 146-acre reservation.

"This is another very significant step forward for our tribe," said Gun Lake Chairman D.K. Sprague. "We are taking the federal government at its word and expect to begin construction of the Gun Lake Casino early next year."

The deadline was set by the Bush administration as part of a lawsuit that casino opponents filed against the Bureau of Indian Affairs. A group called Michigan Gambling Opposition, or MichGO, has held up the tribe's land-into-trust application for nearly two years.

But recent developments have shifted the legal landscape. A federal judge and a federal appeals court dismissed MichGO's lawsuit against the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, also of Michigan, after six years of battles. The tribe is now building a casino on a 675-acre initial reservation.

The changes have the Department of Justice confident that the Gun Lake's land-into-trust will survive the lawsuit. Government attorneys gave MichGO 70 days -- up until January 5, 2007 -- to try and obtain an injunction against the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Government attorneys tried to strike an agreement with MichGO to resolve the case. But, according to a letter filed to federal court on October 27, the group refused and instead asked the BIA to prepare an environmental impact statement, a move that would delay the application even further and require the tribe to pay additional funds.

That would cause "irreparable harm" to the tribe, attorney Gina L. Allery wrote in the letter. "The United States does not believe that an EIS is warranted in this case," she told an attorney for MichGO.

Even when the land is put in trust, the tribe faces an additional hurdle. Michigan has refused to negotiate a Class III gaming compact, although other tribes in the state are operating Class III facilities.

In hopes of bolstering its stance, the tribe cited the Interior Department decision to issue rules for the Seminole Tribe because the state hasn't negotiated a compact. In Wyoming, Interior has agreed to do the same for the Northern Arapaho Tribe because the state failed to come to the table in good faith.

Sprague said the tribe can go that route but he would rather negotiate a deal so that the tribe can share revenues with the state and local governments "A Class III compact would be best for the tribe, the state and the surrounding communities," he said.

The Gun Lake Tribe was recognized through the BIA process in 1999. As newly recognized, the tribe qualifies for an exception under Section 20 of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

Department of Justice Letter:
Gun Lake Band Land-into-Trust (October 27, 2006)

Relevant Links:
Match-e-be-nash-she-wish Band of Pottawatomi -