Off-reservation casinos pit Indians against gambling opponents
Obama administration set to decide soon whether to loosen rules

By Associated Press
Thursday, November 26, 2009

RICHMOND, CALIF. -- An Indian tribe wants to build a grand, $1.5 billion, Las Vegas-style casino resort on a swath of land overlooking San Francisco Bay -- a spot more than 100 miles from its tribal lands.

Across the country, in fact, a number of Indian tribes are seeking to construct casinos well away from their reservations or other tribal lands. And the trend may be about to accelerate: The Obama administration is expected to decide soon whether to loosen the rules on some of these projects.

Gambling opponents deplore the trend and complain that Indian tribes are trying to game the system to expand their operations and get closer to lucrative big-city markets. They fear more gambling will bring more crime and other social ills. "These are all casinos coming to a highway ramp near you," said Cheryl Schmit, director of a nonprofit group that opposes Indian gambling.

Tribes such as the Guidiville Band of Pomo Indians, which is leading the Northern California proposal, say casinos hold the promise of jobs and a better future for their members.

"We have a responsibility to try to make lives better," said Donald Duncan, a top tribal official.

The vast majority of the hundreds of Indian casinos in the United States are on tribal land -- often, well-removed from big cities -- as envisioned under the 1988 federal law that created the $26 billion Indian gambling industry. But the law has exceptions, including ones for tribes such as Guidiville that have regained federal recognition in recent decades and are looking to establish a reservation.

Off-reservation casinos already exist in Milwaukee and Spokane, Wash., having been approved in the 1990s.

About a dozen tribes have applied to set up casinos far from their reservations and close to population centers, federal records show. In six cases, including the Guidiville proposal, the resorts are slated for land more than 100 miles away.

In Michigan, the Hannahville Indian Community wants to build a gambling hall in a city 20 miles outside of Detroit and 457 driving miles from the group's reservation in the Upper Peninsula. Other cities proposed for such casinos include Phoenix, El Paso, Oklahoma City and Portland, Ore.

For many of these Indian tribes, the problem is this: Last year, the Bush administration decided that Indian casinos must be within commuting distance of reservations. It rejected applications from more than 20 tribes, including one for a casino 1,400 miles from the reservation.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs is reassessing the commuting-distance rule. And many tribes are optimistic.

BIA spokesman Gary Garrison said isolated tribes should be allowed to run gambling operations off the reservation. But he added: "We're also very conscious of whether the communities approve or disapprove. We don't want tribes willy-nilly going off reservation." In Richmond, the Guidiville tribe hopes to get the government to declare a 413-acre tract near the San Francisco Bay sovereign tribal land so the Indians can build a casino resort with more than 1,000 hotel rooms, shops, tribal housing and a shoreline park. Also, the Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians is proposing a more modest casino nearby, 113 miles from their land near Clear Lake, Calif.

Both tribes say their ancestral lands were in the Bay Area and that they were forced to retreat when white settlers arrived. The land they now occupy was bought with federal grants but is not a reservation and is not suitable for their casino projects, they say.

The non-Indian casino industry is split over the move by the nation's Indian tribes to expand gambling. Some casino companies stand to gain by getting hired to run the new gambling halls, while others say the expansion encroaches on their territory.

The Guidiville tribe, which has more than 100 members on land near Ukiah, Calif., has agreed to pay the city of Richmond, Calif., $20 million a year for two decades and to hire nearly half its work force locally. Richmond officials hope the resorts would help revitalize the crime-ridden city of 104,000, where unemployment stands at nearly 18 percent.

Some have their doubts. "No family achieved economic stability through gambling," said state Sen. Loni Hancock (D), a former Berkeley mayor whose district includes Richmond. "I don't believe any community will either."

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