Alaska editorial: Legislative leaders pick the wrong way to oppose gambling

Posted: Monday, May 21, 2007

This editorial appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:

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In fighting the Eklutna Natives' Indian gambling proposal, House Speaker John Harris and Sen. President Lyda Green have reopened an old wound. They are using Eklutna's gambling application to question the federal government's long-standing decision to recognize tribes in Alaska. The two Alaska leaders are flogging a settled question to no good end.

Would a big Indian gambling operation at Eklutna be a good thing for Anchorage?

No. Anchorage and Alaska have enough legal gambling as it is. Legal gambling in Alaska is small scale, done for the benefit of charities. That's the way it should stay.

This is not a case where an impoverished Indian community desperately needs money from gambling. Natives in Eklutna own large and valuable tracts of land next to the state's largest city through their Native corporation. That corporation is a major player on the city's real estate scene.

Whether or not it's a good idea, would an Indian gambling emporium, set up through Eklutna's tribal organization, be legal?

That's a different, more complicated question.

Typically, Indian gaming is allowed on land where a tribe exerts full governmental authority, such as Lower 48 Indian reservations. Almost all Alaska Native tribes, including Eklutna, got their land settlement through corporations, rather than reservations. An Alaska tribe has some limited powers over its own members, regardless of where they live. Alaska tribes also deliver many social services, but they do not have government powers over Native corporation lands. The U.S. Supreme Court settled that question, unanimously, in the Venetie case.

There is some wiggle room in the federal rules for where Indian gaming can occur, though, and Eklutna is trying to wiggle through them. Indian gaming would operate outside of state limits on prizes and avoid state oversight, which is pretty thin to begin with. An Indian pull tab or bingo operation would have an unfair advantage over existing charitable gaming operations in Anchorage and might well grow rapidly. (Indian casino gambling couldn't happen in Alaska unless the state legalized casino gambling in general.)

If Eklutna Natives really need bingo and pull tab money, they can pursue it under state law. They could establish a state-chartered nonprofit and get a state charitable gaming permit, as some Native villages have done.

Concern about legalizing large-scale Indian gaming in Alaska is legitimate, but fighting federal recognition of Alaska tribes is not the way to resist. That's like trying to fight a new Wal-Mart by attacking the company's very right to exist as a corporation.

The letter from Rep. Harris and Sen. Green is a hurtful attack on a well-settled point in federal Indian policy. Questioning federal tribal recognition strikes at the very heart of Native identity. It's a weapon that has no place in the dispute over potential Indian gambling in Eklutna.

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