THIS LAND IS THEIR LAND

A tiny Indian tribe pitches a plan for a downtown St. Louis casino, but city officials aren't betting on the idea

St. Louis officials have been approached by an American Indian tribe interested in building a land-based casino in downtown St. Louis, The Riverfront Times has learned.

The deal involves the Delaware Tribe of Western Oklahoma, a federally recognized tribe that is expected to press a related land claim in Missouri. A city official, who requested anonymity, confirmed that a lawyer representing the tribe had scheduled a meeting on the subject for Tuesday. A spokesperson for the St. Louis Development Corp. referred all questions on the matter to Michael Jones, deputy mayor for development. Jones, who has spearheaded the development of the Washington Avenue corridor, including the new convention-center hotel ("The Big Fix," RFT, Nov. 10), could not be reached for comment at press time on Tuesday, but a spokesman says Jones is meeting with the tribe's attorney out of courtesy and does not intend to pursue the idea.

A three-year effort by the tribe to secure a casino in New Jersey failed in late 1998. Similar efforts by other tribes in different cities have met with mixed results. Tribal interests typically pitch their urban-casino proposals as a way of stimulating economic development. Repeated calls to Lawrence Snake, chief of the Western Delawares, went unreturned.

Western Delaware chief Lawrence Snake
Western Delaware chief Lawrence Snake

The Western Delawares -- a 1,200-member tribe headquartered in Anadarko, Okla. -- separated from the rest of the Delaware tribe in the first half of the 19th century after most migrated from southeast Missouri to Kansas. European settlers had earlier pushed the Delawares out of their ancestral lands on the East Coast. The Western Delawares moved first to Texas and then Mexico before finally settling in south-central Oklahoma. They are sometimes referred to as the "absentee Delaware" and are independent of the 10,000-member Delaware tribe of northeastern Oklahoma.

The tribe's claim is based on a land grant given to the tribe by the Spanish colonial governor of the region in the late 18th century. The 800-square-mile tract includes an area north of Cape Girardeau, ranging from the Mississippi River westward to the Whitewater River. Under provisions of the Louisiana Purchase of 1804, the United States government is obligated to recognize pre-existing land titles, according to a legal source with knowledge of the case. A city official told the RFT that the tribe proposed swapping its land claim for three blocks of downtown property, where it wants to build a casino.

Similar land claims have been initiated by other tribes elsewhere, including the Ottawas of Oklahoma. In that case, the tribe cited a treaty, signed with the United States in 1829, that granted the Indians control of what is now a state park in DeKalb County, Ill. The Ottawas met with Illinois state officials last year to negotiate a land trade for the purposes of establishing a casino.

The Ottawas -- and other tribes with claims on Illinois land -- were represented by Tom Julian, a former St. Louisan and art dealer. But Julian, reached at his home in Minnesota, said he isn't participating in the Western Delawares' current negotiations with St. Louis officials.

A spokesman for Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon says the state is unaware of any potential legal action by the Western Delawares to reclaim land in the state.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) has not been informed of the effort, either. But according to a spokesman for the federal agency, the land claim is not altogether unusual. "Occasionally this will pop up," says Rex Hackler, a BIA spokesman in Washington, D.C. "It usually comes from a tribe that's in Oklahoma that was removed from somewhere back East." The claims are commonly placed in states that already have legalized gambling and usually target a metropolitan area, says Hackler.

The Western Delawares staked their first land claim on the New Jersey coastline in 1995. In that case, the fading resort town of Wildwood had eagerly offered to sell the tribe a 2.2-acre parking lot for $1. The city had hoped to bolster its sagging economy through gambling revenues. Tribal interests argued that the land that they were interested in acquiring had been illegally purchased by the state in 1832 without federal approval, in violation of a 1790 law known as the Non-Intercourse Act. The deal to build the casino at the site of the parking lot unraveled, however, when the state of New Jersey intervened with a lawsuit that protected the politically influential gambling interests in Atlantic City. This hostile reaction convinced the tribe to once again look westward toward Missouri, where it had resided until approximately 1830.

The escalation of Native American land claims over the past decade is directly tied to the burgeoning Indian gambling industry. The origins of tribal gambling date back to 1987, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the state of California could not impose its regulations on gambling activities on the Cabazon and Mission Indian reservations. That decision followed an earlier ruling in which the high court decided in favor of land claims made against the state of New York by Oneida tribe. In that case, the court ruled that no statute of limitation existed on old Indian treaties.

Between 1988 -- when the U.S. Congress passed the Indian Regulatory Gaming Act -- and 1997, aggregate tribal gambling revenues increased from $212 million to $6.7 billion, according to a National Gambling Impact Study Commission report released earlier this year. Overall, the nine-year expansion represents a 30-fold increase in Indian gambling revenues. By comparison, the commercial gambling industry's take only doubled over the same period, rising from about $9.6 billion to $20.5 billion. In 1998, the BIA estimated that 260 Indian gambling facilities were operating in 31 states, a growth of more than threefold in 10 years.

The national study determined that income from Indian gambling enterprises provided "much needed improvements in the health, education and welfare of Native Americans on reservations across the country." The report concludes, however, that "Indian gambling has not been a panacea for the many economic and social problems that native Americans continue to face." Indeed, many tribes have refused to take up gambling out of concern that it "may undermine the "cultural integrity' of Indian communities," according to the report. More than two-thirds of the 554 federally recognized tribes have abstained from entering the gambling market, the report says.

Under a provision of the federal law, a tribe must negotiate a compact with the state, if it intends to operate a full-fledged casino. Supervision of the Indian gaming industry falls on the National Indian Gaming Commission, which is empowered to investigate individuals or firms with a financial interest in Indian gambling operations. Since the inception of Indian gaming, however, the commission and state regulatory agencies have been unable to prevent illegal gambling operations from flourishing on sovereign Indian territory. Two years ago, an increase in funding finally allowed the commission to better police Indian gaming.

Though the Western Delawares may not be getting the keys to St. Louis anytime soon, a successful land claim by the tribe could spell legal problems for the state. Once the claim is legitimized, existing land titles in a large area of southeast Missouri may become invalid, forcing property sales in the disputed territory to grind to a halt. Under these conditions, the state could be forced to give the tribe a piece of the action.

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