American Indian opposition to a planned casino resort in rural Wisconsin illustrates the complexities facing federal, state and tribal regulators as tribes nationwide confront one another over new and expanded casino projects in an increasingly competitive market.
Wisconsin tribes are angry at the Ho-Chunk Indian Nation’s plans to build an upscale casino resort in Whittenberg, on land designated by state gambling regulators as an “ancillary” site normally limited to slot parlors and convenience stores.
The tribes contend the project violates Ho-Chunk’s tribal-state regulatory compact, its gaming ordinances and federal law on the eligibility of trust lands for casinos.
At least two of the tribes—the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohicans and the Menominee Nation—will see a significant drop in business at their tribal casinos as a result of the Ho-Chunk project, which will siphon customers from the Wausau market.
Other tribes fear a broad interpretation of the “ancillary” clause in the tribal-state compact will result in a dramatic expansion of gambling in the state.
As is the case with tribes facing potential casino competition in Washington, California, Arizona and elsewhere, Stockbridge-Munsee, Menominee, the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin and other Wisconsin tribes are lashing out at what they perceive to be ineffective, inconsistent and non-transparent state and federal gambling regulations.
Unlike commercial casinos, tribal operations are government enterprises intended to fund health, education, housing and other services for their citizens.
Tribal casinos largely operate in accordance with the Indian Gambling Regulatory Act (IGRA) of 1988, which for Class III casino-style gambling requires a tribal-state regulatory agreement, or compact. They are also subject to a myriad of complex federal and state regulations and often-vague federal Indian policies molded by political interests on Capitol Hill.
New and expanded Indian casinos on existing reservations and newly established trust lands often create competition for other indigenous communities dependent on gambling revenues, resulting in a clash between federal, state and tribal governments.
Navigating the regulatory and political landscape is often long, expensive and frustrating for tribes seeking to get into the business and others trying to put a stop to additional gambling.
“You’re talking about complexities in the land-trust laws. You’re talking about complexities with regulations. And you’re talking about complexities with politics—tribal and state and federal politics,” says an Indian law attorney who requested anonymity.
“If you’re tribe A and tribe B comes into your market, are you going to say, ‘No fair; you’re going to create competition for us?’ Or are you going to say, ‘No fair; what you’re doing violates the law?’ You’re going to challenge the legality of the project.
“That’s happening more and more.”