TULSA — A small American Indian tribe doesn’t have the jurisdiction to build a casino in a Tulsa suburb because the 20-acre site lies within the boundaries of another larger tribe, attorneys told a federal judge Wednesday.
Construction on the project continues amid protest from thousands of area residents, lawmakers and pastors. The lawyers presented their arguments during a court hearing in the casino construction fight. They said the 350-member Kialegee Tribal Town has no right to stake a claim to the land in the city of Broken Arrow because it’s owned by two Muscogee Creek Nation tribal members.
“Jurisdiction is something one can’t acquire by planting a flag” on a parcel of land, state’s attorney Lynn Slade argued.
Furthermore, the tribe has no court system, no full-time police force and no personnel to properly monitor a casino with hundreds of slot machines, Slade said. He added that the project is in an area near schools, churches and neighborhoods and asked the judge to spare the community.
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt sued the Kialegee Tribal Town in federal court in February, accusing the tribe of moving ahead with construction without obtaining federal approval to lease the property. Pruitt is asking U.S. District Judge Gregory K. Frizzell to grant an injunction to stop construction at the site.
The hearing on the injunction began Wednesday in federal court in Tulsa and is expected to wrap up by Friday.
An attorney for the Kialegee, Dennis Whittlesey, argued that the tribe has had the project under review by the National Indian Gaming Commission for months and no one at that agency has complained about the project’s legality.
“At no point has anyone suggested to us they have a problem with gaming on this land,” Whittlesey told the judge in opening statements.
The state’s first witness, University of Oklahoma history professor Gary Anderson, spent the bulk of the morning and afternoon tracing the intricate relationship between the Kialegee and Muscogee Creek Nation, dating back to treaties signed in the late 1800s and going forward.
Anderson, an expert in American Indian history, said the difference between the groups is that the Muscogee have a historical claim on the geographic area where the proposed casino sits.
Slade, the state’s attorney, asked Anderson if there was any example in his research of the Kialegee being granted authority outside the tribe’s Wetumpka headquarters in southeastern Oklahoma.
“I found nothing providing them any (authority), period,” Anderson answered.
During cross-examination, Whittlesey accused Anderson of inventing a “two-tier” system for labeling some tribes, suggesting that the Kialegee were somehow subservient to the Muscogee Creek Nation.
Whittlesey also quizzed Anderson on his knowledge of American Indian history.
“How many tribal constitutions have you helped write?” he asked.
“None,” Anderson replied.
Testimony continues Thursday morning.
The Kialegee Tribal Town broke ground on the Red Clay Casino site near the Creek Turnpike late last year and has trucked in several pre-fabricated buildings in recent weeks to temporarily house slot machines. The tribe plans to open sometime this summer in the trailers and says a permanent facility will be built next year.
But the tribe has yet to win approval from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the National Indian Gaming Commission to allow it to conduct gaming at the site.
The town king, Tiger Hobia, says his tribe is exempt from a federal review. He has said the casino would give the tribe its only chance to provide programs for its impoverished members. Sixty-five percent of tribal members are unemployed, he said, and more than 90 percent of those who are employed only earn minimum wage.
“The Red Clay Casino project provides our tribe with its only viable opportunity to provide programs for our elders, our school-age children and our infants and to develop a strategy to achieve long-term security for our tribe and finally a way to escape from the crippling effects of poverty,” Hobia wrote in a letter to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The land is currently owned by two sisters who have attempted to transfer their parcel to the tribe. However, a district judge has refused to approve the transaction, deferring instead to the federal government to determine whether the land can be leased.
Opponents of the casino include church leaders, federal lawmakers and school superintendents.