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Tohono O'odham Nation warns Congress they will sue if legislation approves ban of gaming on tribal land

Phoenix, AZ – A 1986 federal law allowed the tribe to buy land in Maricopa, Pima or Pinal counties to replace 10,000 acres of reservation that were flooded by a federal dam project. The Tohono bought some land adjacent to Glendale in 2003, less than a year after voters agreed to give tribes the exclusive right to operate casinos in exchange for the state getting a share of the profits. But the real ownership did not become known until 2009 when the tribe asked the Interior Department to make it part of the reservation, a precursor to building a casino. That drew an outcry from officials from the state, the city of Glendale and other tribes. Now Congressman Trent Franks is trying to get his colleagues to amend that 1986 law, retroactively, to spell out that while the Tohono can have the land, there can be no gaming there. Tribal chairman Ned Norris Jr. said that would be yet another broken promise by the federal government.

(In addition, enactment of HR 2938 would create new breach of contract, breach of trust, and taking claims against the United States for breaking the settlement agreement under the Lands Replacement Act, exposing the United States and American taxpayers to substantial liability.)

But Diane Enos, president of the Salt River-Maricopa Indian Community, told members of the House Subcommittee on Indians and Alaska Native Affairs that the campaign for that 2002 tribal gaming measure included a specific promise that gambling would be limited to existing reservations -- and that there would be no more than seven casinos in the Phoenix metro area. And she said officials of all the tribes agreed at that time they would not try to undermine that deal -- exactly what she said the Tohono are trying to do now.

(This saddens and disturbs us. But it's also what motivates us to be here today. Because in our tribal cultures, one's word ought to be enough. Tribes should not have to worry about whether we can trust the word of another tribal government. Yet that is what we have today.)

Several lawsuits seeking to stop the plans are making their way through the federal court system. So far, though, the rulings have concluded that the 1986 law does entitle the Tohono to do what the tribe wants, which is why Franks wants to amend that law. But the Tohono have their allies, including Peoria Mayor Bob Barrett, who urged lawmakers to kill Franks' legislation.

(It is job-killing legislation brought by selfish special interests. Unlike other matters this Congress may consider to promote job creation, this bill goes in the opposite direction. As the duly-elected mayor of my community, I cannot stand by while political gamesmanship so blatantly stands between my constituents and the opportunities for employment they desperately seek.)

Barrett did not say who those special interests are. But it has been no secret that a new casino near Glendale likely would attract gamblers who now travel longer distances to the gaming facilities operated by other tribes. For Arizona Public Radio this is Howard Fischer.