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  • Lani Hansen

Council approves submitting new trust application for 2.03 acres



TAHLEQUAH – The United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians Tribal Council unanimously voted to approve the submission of a new land in trust application for the tribe’s 2.03-acre parcel in Tahlequah during its regular monthly meeting on Jan. 8.

The parcel was the previous location of the tribe's Keetoowah Cherokee Casino, which began operations on February 14, 1986 by playing paper bingo before evolving to Class II electronic gaming devices. It closed its doors in August 2013.

The submission of a new application asking once more for the land to be placed in trust as a gaming parcel comes after the U.S. Department of the Interior issued a letter to the tribe on November 23, 2021 from Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Bryan Newland.

The letter states the DOI would be withdrawing its 2012 decision to approve the tribe’s 2.03-acre parcel as a gaming parcel made under then Assistant Secretary Larry Echohawk due to new legal developments related to the McGirt v. Oklahoma ruling in 2020, which established that the Creek Nation reservation had never been dissolved.

Echohawk’s decision in 2012 to allow gaming on the UKB parcel was based on Indian Gaming Regulatory Act language that prohibits gaming on Indian lands held in trust by the Secretary after October 17, 1988 unless the tribe meets certain exceptions. These exceptions include “if the Indian tribe has no reservation and the lands are in Oklahoma and within the boundaries of the Indian tribe’s former reservation, as defined by the Secretary.”

Echohawk determined the land was within the boundaries of the UKB’s former reservation, which prompted the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and Cherokee Nation Entertainment to a suit against the DOI following the decision.

On March 24, 2020, U.S. Northern District of Oklahoma Court Judge Gregory Frizzell ruled that the DOI could not take 2.03-acres of land in Tahlequah into trust for the purpose of tribal gaming because Echohawk “contorted the applicable law when he determined that the UKB tribe once had a reservation.”

According to UKB Attorney Victoria Holland, both of these decisions were based upon the status of the land as a “former reservation,” which has now been overturned by McGirt.

“Our Echohawk letter said, ‘Yes, you have a former reservation.’ Frizzell's opinion out of the Northern District said, ‘No, you don't.’ Both decisions are based on that ‘former reservation’ status. Then McGirt came along and its related decisions, which said that the Cherokee reservation is still intact,” she said. “We now have new information that we didn't have at the time we first applied. We no longer have a former reservation. We have a current reservation. That means to clean things up and not convolute the issue, we need to do a new application under the current reservation.”

The Jan. 8 resolution to reapply was sponsored by Delaware Councilor Caleb Grimmett-Smith. Treasurer Sonja Gourd made the motion to approve, with a second by Cooweescoowee Councilor Clifford Wofford and passing unanimously.

During the meeting, Assistant Chief Jeff Wacoche also proposed a resolution to open enrollment back up on a “limited basis” for “newborns and new members of the age of 18.”

Tribal Council froze its enrollment in October 2021 to avoid dually enrolled Cherokees from receiving federal funding from both the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and the UKB, according to Secretary Joyce Hawk.

Hawk said the resolution proposed by Wacoche on Jan. 8 is “already in place” through the tribe’s current Enrollment Ordinance.

“The language that has been stated here, that is already in place. When I came on board, it was already in the Enrollment Ordinance. I just feel like all this is in place already, we just froze it. We want to resolve this and we want people to be able to enroll again, so now we need to unfreeze it because we still have protocols in place to avoid people double dipping.”

After additional debate, the issue was tabled until the next council meeting with no action taken.

In other news, Council:

· Approved the creation of a Budget Committee to work with the tribe on an “ongoing basis.” Committee members will be nominated and approved by Council;

· Tabled a motion from Tahlequah District Councilor Alvin Hicks that would have reopened the tribe’s lobby to the public due to rising COVID-19 concerns;

· Approved 7 American Rescue Plan applications for funding from tribal members who met the tribe’s deadline but encountered issues with paperwork;

· Approved the submission of an application to the State Small Business Credit Initiative to apply for small business loan grant money for tribal members;

· Tabled a discussion to February to create an application for tribal members to apply for small business loans through the tribe;

· and voted to submit an application to Bureau of Indian Affairs for attorney fees and litigation support funds under 25 CFR Part 89 instead of the tribe utilizing its own funds for that purpose.

To view the meeting in its entirety, the public can visit the UKB Facebook Page and see the “Videos” tab.

The next regularly scheduled Tribal Council meeting was set for Feb. 5 at 10 a.m. at the UKB Judicial Center (formerly the UKB Wellness Center).



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