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Eklutna wants to open a tribal gaming casino; Alaska says that challenges the state’s sovereignty

Jan 8, 2020

The state of Alaska is intervening in a lawsuit between the Native Village of Eklutna and the Department of Interior. The federally recognized tribe wants the U.S. government to allow Eklutna to open a Class II tribal gaming facility on property north of Anchorage. The state says that would infringe on Alaska's sovereignty. (Photo by Alexandra Gutierrez/KUCB)

The only tribal gaming casino in the state is in Metlakatla, on the Annette Island Indian Reserve. But a federally recognized tribe near Anchorage wants to change that.

In the state’s early history, a federal law -- the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act -- parceled out land to 12 regional corporations, Native Village corporations and thousands of tribal allotments. In exchange Alaska Natives gave up further claims to land and most of the resources on and under the ground. 

Alaska also considers most gambling -- outside of state-licensed gaming -- illegal.

But the Native Village of Eklutna wants to build a tribal gaming casino on one of those allotments that it leases from one of its members. Eklutna is suing the Department of Interior to clear a federal hurdle.

"The native village of Eklutna believes it has a case that this individual allotment assigned to a family before ANCSA can be considered Indian country under federal law," said James Brooks, a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News covering the developments in the case. "And that the federal government's interpretation that it is not Indian country is incorrect. And that's what this lawsuit is about, is that they want the federal government to recognize that, yes, this is appropriate spot for a tribal gaming hall. What some folks have called a casino and that they can go ahead with their plans."

But the Alaska Department of Law has a different interpretation. At the end of December, the state of Alaska intervened in a federal lawsuit between an Alaska Native village and the U.S. Government.

Assistant Attorney General Mariah Bahr says Alaska has a lot at stake.

“The State wants to be involved because this case has the potential to impact the state’s sovereign jurisdictional, regulatory, and taking authority interests," she said. "Only the state can adequately protect those interests.”

The Native Village of Eklutna is a federally recognized tribe in the northern end of the municipality of Anchorage. The tribe would still need state approval to open the gaming facility, a Class II casino under the Indian Gaming regulations.

A class II casino only allows pull-tabs, lotto and bingo, and electronic forms of those games. It would not allow games like blackjack, poker or slot machines.

“Right. Right. This is not going to be a Vegas-style casino. Under state law, you can't have that type of gambling in Alaska. And so what they're envisioning is something like what's in place in Metlakatla right now. Pull tab, bingo parlor and maybe some electronic machines that the state doesn't allow,” Brooks said. “And so it wouldn't be all that dissimilar from your normal pull tab parlor except more electronic machines.”

The tribe is leasing a Native allotment that it says constitutes as traditional tribal land that it has held since before the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. But the U.S. Department of Interior says the land does not meet the definition of “Indian lands” or “Indian Country,” a legal designation akin to reservation land and land-in-trust for tribes in the Lower 48.

The state says the tribe’s casino would compete with state-licensed gaming that benefits all Alaskans. The state also says it’s unclear whether it could impose taxes on tribal gaming or require the net proceeds to benefit charities.

Anchorage Daily News reporter James Brooks contributed to this report, as did Alaska Public Media reporters Zachariah Hughes and Liz Ruskin.

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