The Ponca Indian Tribe located in Nebraska in the United States remains undeterred from its plans to open a casino near the city of Council Bluffs, Iowa which has long challenged the legality of the proposed casino. Litigation to allow or prevent the Ponca casino has dragged on now for over ten years – is there an end in site?
Gaming on Indian Lands
Tribe Chairman, Larry Wright, Jr. restated his tribe’s determination to build the casino in a statement he released recently. The story has its origins far back in the 1970’s when the Florida Seminoles opened a bingo hall on their land. The state of Florida opposed the bingo hall because it was illegal under then state law. The Supreme Court ruled that the state could not regulate Indian activities on their own land.
The similarity of the legality of gambling on Indian land has been cited in challenges to the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act which restricts access to casino online games. In both instances, casino gambling was allowed in the states in question; the difference was whether competition would be allowed.
The court clarified itself in 1987 which led to the boom of casinos being built on Indian land.
Ponca Tribe Plans a Casino
The Ponca Tribe owns land on highway H and Abbot Road in the Town of Carter Lake just a couple of miles from Council Bluffs across the Missouri River. The tribe submitted its request to build a casino on its land in 2007. In that year, the National Indian Gaming Commission green lighted the tribe’s request for a license to build a casino but the City of Council Bluffs immediately filed a lawsuit to prevent it. In 2010 a lower court obviated the licensure agreement but a higher court reversed the lower court’s decision. The case is now making its way through the labyrinthine US judicial court system of appeals.
Chief Standing Bear
The Ponca Indians have a long history in present day Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Iowa. The leader in the 19th century was called Chief Standing Bear. His people lost their federal designation and title to tribal lands in 1962 and regained tribal status in 1990. The tribe purchased the present land holding in 1999.
Part of the legal wrangling revolves around the official designation of the land as either tribal land or land owned by a tribe of Indians. The law allowing Indians to run their own affairs specifically mentioned tribal lands so the argument is that the Ponca no longer live on tribal lands but lands they bought as a consortium or partnership.
In November 2017, the Indian Gaming Commission approved the tribe’s request to build a casino on five acres in Carter Lake. The following month Richard Wade of the Council Bluffs City Attorney’s office filed a restraining order. His argument is that the tribe doesn’t meet the requirements set by the court to obtain a license to run a casino.
Everything Depends on a Technicality….and Financial Politics
The technical issue is whether the land that the tribe bought is to be considered “restored lands” which would give the tribe the authority to build the casino. If the land is not deemed “restored” but merely purchased, the tribe has no legal standing to build a casino as a tribe.
The problem of how the land is designated is just a technicality. The city clearly stated in its complaint that a casino located so close to Council Bluffs and from which the city would have no financial claims would amount to unfair competition to the existing legal gambling operations in Council Bluffs.
The casinos attract many visits from across the Missouri River in the Carter Lake area, from Omaha, the largest city in Nebraska, and in the surrounding area. Council Bluffs collects $3,000,000 a year in fees from the existing casinos which also contribute several million dollars to local charities each year. Under present law, Nebraska doesn’t allow casino gambling on state land but would have no authority to prevent the Ponca Indians from building a casino on their land if the land is designated “restored”.
Tribe’s Plans not Meant to Rival Las Vegas
Larry Wright, the tribe’s leader, said the plans are for a casino and hotel with upwards of 2000 slot machines, 50 gambling tables, and 150 rooms in the hotel. He stated that the City of Council Bluffs has yet to ask to discuss the matter with tribal leaders who are always open to discuss the issue.
Hundreds of Indian tribes have opened casinos in 29 states since the Supreme Court gave them the authority to manage their own affairs on their own land. Aggregate revenues from all the casinos topped 31 billion dollars in 2017 which represents a 4.4% growth rate over the previous year.
Winners and Losers
In a sense, the issue here is similar to what obtains every day in every casino around the world. Some people end up as winners and some as losers. If the tribe is finally allowed to go ahead with its plans, its members will benefit greatly.
There is no certainty that the City of Council Bluffs would lose financially as the casinos that today pay fees to the city and donate to charities have not said that the competing casino would cut into those payments or donations.
In short, the only losers ultimately might be the owners of the existing casinos in Council Bluffs and the people of both Council Bluffs and the Ponca tribe for litigation costs.