Two small Native American tribes that have clashed with larger tribes in pursuit of developing casinos have signed new gaming compacts with Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt.
The United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians and the Kialegee Tribal Town announced their compacts with Stitt today, with UKB leaders calling it “a monumental day” and a step toward “building a strong economy” for an Indigenous community that has previously faced hurdles in Oklahoma’s robust casino industry.
“It is both an honor and privilege to be announcing the signing of this economic venture between the great state of Oklahoma and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians,” said UKB Chief Joe Bunch. “We thank Gov. Kevin Stitt and his administration for this monumental day and for their leadership efforts in this compact. It is a grand day for Keetoowahs and Native American tribes all over the country. It is a day when one of their own partnered with Oklahoma in building a stronger economy through the avenues of retail, food and beverage, hotel, hospitality and casino operations, all by signing a Class III gaming compact with the state.”
The United Keetoowah Band has about 14,000 enrolled tribal members. Membership is limited to individuals who are at least one-fourth Cherokee.
“This compact also presents an opportunity for the UKB to move forward and begin increasing health, education and job opportunities for our tribal members and elders, as well as our surrounding communities,” Bunch said. “After all, we know if our communities are doing well, the state is also doing well. Thank you and God bless the UKB and the State of Oklahoma.”
Stitt’s administration released the Kialegee Tribal Town compact without an accompanying statement from tribal leaders, and a phone recording at KTT headquarters said the tribe’s offices are closed owing to COVID-19.
Stitt, however, said his goal has been to “level the playing field for all tribes” in the state.
“By negotiating with each individual Oklahoma tribe, the state is seeking to level the playing field for all tribes and working to ensure that no one is held back by its size or resources from competing and pursuing economic growth for its citizens,” Stitt said in a statement. “The Kialegee Tribal Town is pursuing a sound business plan for its first gaming location in Oklahoma with their compact commitment to partner with another tribe on this venture. They have been good faith partners in this process, and the State looks forward to supporting their efforts to strengthen opportunities for KTT citizens, to expand economic development in the region, and to generate new revenue for Oklahoma’s public education system.”
UKB, KTT casino locations would be near OKC
Since they do not currently operate casinos, neither the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians nor the Kialegee Tribal Town is a member of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association. Matthew Morgan is chairman of the OIGA and director of gaming affairs for the Chickasaw Nation, which runs the state’s largest casino gaming operation.
Morgan panned the two small tribes’ compacts in a statement as “neither legal nor helpful,” but he did emphasize tribal sovereignty.
“Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association respects that each sovereign tribal nation must decide for itself what is best for its citizens,” Morgan said.
A federally recognized tribe with historic ties to the Cherokee Nation, the United Keetowah Band operated a casino in Tahlequah for 27 years until 2013 when the Cherokee Nation went to court to prevent the casino’s land being placed into trust for the UKB. The UKB compact announced Thursday does not permit casino operations at that site within the Cherokee Nation. Instead, it authorizes the tribe to operate a casino within one mile of a state or federal highway or turnpike in Logan County.
Likewise, the Kialegee Tribal Town compact specifies a casino location east of Choctaw Road in Oklahoma County within one mile of a state or federal highway or turnpike.
The Kialegee Tribal Town is located in Hughes County, with a building just outside of Wetumka on State Highway 27 inside the territory of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. The Kialegee total about 700 members and have sued the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in an attempt to gain casino gaming rights for a Broken Arrow location. That effort failed.
Background on other new gaming compacts
In March, Stitt sent a series of proposed new gaming compacts to smaller tribes while his legal team was in the middle of court-ordered mediation in the lawsuit filed by Oklahoma’s largest gaming tribes.
In late April, the Comanche Nation and Otoe-Missouria Tribe signed new compacts with Stitt, breaking with the larger tribes and receiving potentially lucrative territory expansions in north-central and south-central Oklahoma. Those compacts featured a slight increase in exclusivity fees paid to the state on existing casinos and a doubling of the fees for future casino developments. (The UKB and KTT compacts released today feature similar exclusivity fee arrangements for new casinos.)
Shortly after the Comanche and Otoe-Missouria signed their compacts, the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association suspended their membership for the remainder of 2020. Comanche Nation Chairman William Nelson Sr. called the OIGA’s decision “unfortunate” and said the organization “doesn’t respect tribal sovereignty.”
In 2019 and the beginning of 2020, the largest gaming tribes in Oklahoma — the Chickasaw Nation, Choctaw Nation and Cherokee Nation — spent millions of dollars on an advertising campaign with the slogan “United for Oklahoma,” but the ads stopped airing around the same time the Comanche Nation and Otoe-Missouria Nation signed their new compacts.
On June 8, Stitt announced that the Bureau of Indian Affairs had deemed the Comanche and Otoe-Missouria compacts approved by default, which means the agency determined they are approved to the extent that they are consistent with federal law. It’s possible some large tribes opposing the new compacts could file federal lawsuit challenging their legality.
Stitt is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation but has historically not been active within the tribe. Stitt has received criticism when he previously referenced it during public discussion about his gaming compact renegotiation efforts.
Plenty of court battles remain on compacts
The Stitt administration is already tied up in court regarding its new gaming compacts. In addition to the ongoing mediation process about whether the state’s original Model Tribal Gaming Compact expired at the end of 2019, leaders of the Oklahoma Legislature sued Stitt on June 4 and are seeking an Oklahoma Supreme Court determination of whether the governor has the authority to unilaterally sign compacts, especially as it relates to the inclusion of language about sports betting.
A court referee heard arguments Wednesday on whether to accept original jurisdiction of the Legislature’s lawsuit. The arguments were streamed on YouTube, but administrative director of the courts Jari Askins said she does not believe the video was retained.
Morgan referenced the hearings in his statement from the OIGA.
“Like many others, we listened carefully to the July 1 oral arguments before the Oklahoma Supreme Court, and we agree with Oklahoma’s legislative leadership and Attorney General Mike Hunter that Gov. Kevin Stitt unilaterally entering into new gaming agreements with Tribal Nations violates state law,” Morgan said. “For the past year, Gov. Stitt’s actions have caused unnecessary strife, costly litigation and have wasted the state’s resources.”
Read the new UKB and KTT gaming compacts below. Thursday’s announcement is the second positive development for the United Keetoowah Band in less than two weeks. In late June, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the Cherokee Nation’s challenge to a 2019 decision that authorized the UKB to move land into trust within the Cherokee Nation’s historical boundaries.
(Clarification: This story was updated at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, July 2, to clarify reference to the United Keetoowah Band.)