Lansing Tribal Casino Receives Encouragement from Interior Department Letter
The Sault St. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians received a legal victory on the day before Donald Trump took office which could help it end a 5-year legal dispute. The Sault St. Marie Tribe wants to build a $245 million in downtown Lansing, Michigan.
On January 19, the tribe received a letter from the U.S. Department of the Interior which stated that the tribe’s application for a Lansing casino is “mandatory”, under terms of the Michigan Indian Land Claims Settlement Act of 1997. The letter also gave the good news that the Interior Department plans to keep the application open, so the tribe “may present evidence of an enhancement”.
US Interior Department’s Tribal Affairs
The US Interior Department has handled Native American affairs through its Indian Bureau since the 19th century. After a landmark 1986 US Supreme Court decision recognized reservation land as “sovereign”, hundreds of tribal casinos have been opened across the United States.
In each case, the Interior Department had to give approval to the tribe, which then would negotiate a casino compact with the adjacent state.
Both Sault St. Marie tribal chairperson Aaron Payment and Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero said they felt a corner had been turned with the Tuesday letter. Verg Bernero interpreted the letter to mean that the Interior Department now accepted the tribe’s legal position, so it would work with the tribe in the near future.
Virg Bernero Statement on Lansing Casino
Mayor Bernero said to the Lansing State Journal, “We are very encouraged by the Interior Department’s statement on the tribe’s trust application. It is another step forward in what we knew would be a long, complicated process. We remain completely committed to the project and confident that the Lansing Kewadin Casino, and the Lansing Promise Scholarship it will fund, will come to fruition.”
The Lansing mayor said the Sault St. Marie casino would create 700 construction jobs and 1,500 permanent casino jobs, and would be an overall boost for the local economy.
Saginaw Chippewa and Potawatomi Tribe’s Opposition
Not everyone interpreted the letter in the same way, though. Two Michigan tribes have opposed the Sault St. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians these past five years. The Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi and Saginaw Chippewa Indian tribes have opposed the Lansing casino, because it would be a rival competitor in an increasingly crowded Michigan casino environment.
The respective chairpersons for the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi and Saginaw Chippewa Indian tribes pointed out a passage of the letter which said the Interior Department had “insufficient evidence to allow us to proceed” with the process.
Statements from Frank Cloutier and Jamie Stuck
The Saginaw Chippewa’s Frank Cloutier and Potawatomi’s Jamie Stuck said that the inability of the Sault St. Marie Tribe to gain approval from the Obama Adminstration leaves the project in doubt, and might even prove fatal to their effort. Cloutier and Stuck sent a letter to the Interior Department stating that the Lansing casino proposal is without merit.
The letter from Frank Cloutier and Jamie Stuck said, “It’s been five years since the (Sault) Tribe and Mayor Bernero promised the people of Lansing that a casino was only one to two years away. At the time we said that was a blatant attempt to mislead the public. The fact is, they are no closer to a casino today than five years ago.”
They Cited Possible Trump Administration Opposition
The two tribal spokespersons noted that the Trump Administration likely would be a much tougher sale. They cited the new Interior Secretary, former US Rep. Ryan Zinke of Montana, as less likely to approve the Sault St. Marie Tribe’s applications.
The letter from the Saginaw Chippewa and Potawatomi stated, “Furthermore, the incoming Secretary of Interior has a record that is not nearly as favorable to off-reservation gaming as the previous administration.”
John Wernet Blames Rival Tribes for Delays
The lawyer for the Sault St. Marie tribe, John Wernet, disagrees with that interpretation. Wernet told the Lansing State Journal that the Interior Department would not have wasted 5 years if it planned to deny the application.
John Wernet blamed the long delay on legal hassles posed by the rival tribes, whom he said kept the process tied up in litigation for a full two years. If it were not for the stalling tactics by the Saginaw Chippewa and the Potawatomi, says Wernet, the process would have taken the usual amount of time the bureaucratic process normally takes.
New Adminstration Presents a Wild Card
One thing the Saginaw Chippewa and Potawatomi tribes probably are correct about is the wild card the administration of Donald Trump presents. President Trump was the “change candidate” and his ascension means that business-as-usual will not prevail in Washington DC for a while. Donald Trump once had major controversies with tribal gaming interests in New York state, so there is no telling what stance his adminstration will have on new tribal casinos.