Tribal gaming expansion continues sweeping across the United States, as the federal Department of the Interior (DOI) continues declaring land as sovereign property.

tribal gaming expansion Cherokee Nation

Cherokee Nation Chief Bill John Baker, seen here in the flashy jacket cutting the ribbon on his newest casino, is playing a significant role in tribal gaming expansion in the US. (Image: Kaylea Hutson-Miller/Grove Sun)

The most recent Native American casino to open in the US is the Cherokee Casino Grove in northeast Oklahoma near the Arkansas state border. The $39 million, 40,000-square-foot facility, is the tribe’s 10th gambling venue.

The Cherokee Nation acquired the 24-acre Grove parcel in 2013.

In just the last year alone, legal battles over tribal gaming took place in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Florida, Indiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, and California. The disputes often deal with whether Native American groups possess the right to build casinos on land that was only recently purchased.

Gross gaming revenue at Indian gaming casinos enjoyed its most prosperous year to date in the fiscal year 2015. Total income totaled nearly $30 billion, $21.8 billion more than the Las Vegas Strip and Atlantic City markets combined.

Reading Between the Lines

In 1998, Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) to provide a supervisory framework for tribal gaming.

The federal government ruled that states home to Native American groups must allow those organizations to offer Class II gaming (bingo, pull tabs, and certain card games). Class III gaming, however, would be dictated and regulated by states and their voters.

The IGRA requires Indian gambling to commence on Indian lands, but that isn’t restricted only to their reservations. Lands held in trust, as well as newly purchased acreage, can potentially also be included.

The Indian gaming law mandates that lands acquired after the act’s passage in October of 1998 be excluded from casino activities. However, there are exceptions, such as if a tribe didn’t hold sovereign land prior to 1998, and if the property in question falls within the boundaries of the tribe’s former reservation.

There’s a multitude of possible legal challenges to the IGRA, which is why the US government has been forced to reach numerous opinions.

Eye of the D-O-I

When contentions arise between local governments and Native American groups over tribal gaming expansion, it’s often the DOI that interjects to settle the score. The agency was extremely busy in 2016.

The most notable battle is currently taking place in Massachusetts where the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe is trying to build a casino in Taunton.

Massachusetts legalized land-based commercial gambling in 2011 through its Expanded Gaming Act. Three licenses were designated for three distinct regions covering the state.

MGM is building a $950 million resort in Springfield and Wynn Resorts is constructing the $2 billion Wynn Boston Harbor, but the southeast license remains in limbo. That’s due to the Mashpee trying to move forward with building a casino costing between $500 million and $1 billion on land that was only federally recognized in 2015.

If the tribe wins its case, the state would void the third gaming license due to saturation concerns.

Last fall, Massachusetts District Judge William Young ruled that the Mashpee people could not build the resort. In his ruling, the justice said he felt the DOI erred in designating the 151 acres in question as sovereign land.

The Mashpee tribe is appealing the verdict to the federal government for further examination.