By TEDDYE SNELL
The United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma reached an agreement with Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt Tuesday, extending the tribe’s deadline for gaining a parcel of land into trust.
The 2.03 acres is land upon which the tribe’s casino sits, and the UKB had until the end of July 2013 to gain trust status or cease gaming operations.
Last June, the UKB and Pruitt signed an agreement requiring the tribe to pay $2 million in damages for operating the casino without a compact, plus secure trust status.
According to Pruitts Communications Director Diane Clay, the U.S. Department of Interior asked the state to extend the deadline indefinitely, to which the state did not agree.
“The UKB then asked for a 30-day extension,” said Clay. “The extension was granted following the Interior Department’s notice of intent to take the land into trust within the 30-day period.”
Clay said the state agreed to an Aug. 30 extension in exchange for the UKB’s increasing its monthly settlement payments to $5,000 per month and ending its lawsuit against the state.
“The lawsuit was originally filed several years ago in state district court and was moved to federal court in the Eastern District of Oklahoma,” said Clay. “The UKB sough and was granted an order keeping the state from enforcing the state’s anti-gambling laws on the UKB’s casino site. If the land is not taken into trust by Aug. 30, the casino must close.”
The casino, at 2450 S. Muskogee Ave., has been in operation since 1986. Since its inception, a dispute has existed between the UKB and the Cherokee Nation as to whether the land can be considered for a trust designation.
Last week, the CN petitioned to block the BIA’s move to place the UKB land into trust, filing a federal injunction. According to the Cherokee Nation Constitution, tribal leaders are honor-bound to prevent another tribe from taking land into trust within its jurisdiction – “by blood,” if necessary.
Following the CN filing, Principal Chief Bill John Baker offered two solutions to resolve the controversy.
The first option would be for the BIA to take the plot of land into trust on behalf of the Cherokee Nation, and for the CN to immediately sign a 99-year lease with the UKB, with an automatic renewal clause, allowing the UKB to continue gaming operations. Through that pact, the UKB would retain the profits and its 300 employees.
The second option, according to Baker, is to arrange for the UKB gaming facility to move its existing operation to an acreage of land the CN has in trust for gaming purposes near the junction of Highways 82 and 62, south of Tahlequah. Under this option, the CN would sign a 99-year renewable lease for the UKB to conduct a comparable gaming operation to its current facility.
Baker said the extension will have no effect on the CN’s legal proceedings.
“The state’s extension from the attorney general’s office does not affect the federal proceedings with the Department of the Interior,” said Baker. “The Cherokee Nation’s offer of settlement remains on the table. I hope the leadership at the UKB puts their employees and their families first with a good faith solution that will be beneficial to all parties.
Jim McMillin, attorney for the UKB, said the tribe has no comment on options offered by Baker, and hopes federal court judges will allow the land to be taken into trust.
“We trust the federal court, upon hearing all of the evidence, will decline to issue an injunction and permit the Department of Interior provisionally to take the land into trust,” said McMillin.