Tribes Must Step Up Against Gaming Compact Dispute

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WASHINGTON — American Indian tribes face “a direct threat to their sovereignty” if they don’t stand up to Oklahoma state government’s effort to manipulate the state’s gaming compacts with the tribes, an official of the nation’s largest Native American group said recently.

Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians, warned of an “annihilation” of the tribal sovereignty if Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt succeeds in his effort to alter the gaming compact. Sharp made her comments following the 18th annual State of Indian Nations address hosted by George Washington University in Washington D.C. 

“The National Congress of American Indians, our delegates and members, we stand with those tribes that are facing a direct threat and annihilation to their sovereignty through this compact dispute,” said Sharp.  

The debate boils down to whether or not the model gaming compacts agreed to by gaming tribes and the state of Oklahoma expired on Jan. 1 or if they automatically renewed for an additional 15-year term. 

The Choctaw, Cherokee and Chickasaw Nations, later joined by the Muscogee (Creek) and Citizen Potawatomi tribes, filed a lawsuit in federal district court last December against Stitt to resolve the compact issue and keep gaming at status quo in the meantime.

In response Gov. Stitt denied the allegations and insisted the compacts expired last year. Both sides have said they are willing to negotiate before the deadline, but now the issue has turned from the state trying to negotiate for higher exclusivity fees paid annually by the tribes into an issue of tribal sovereignty. 

“When the tribal nations succeed in putting the state of Oklahoma in its place, we will be standing right there with them,” Sharp said, explaining the NCAI’s position on the compact dispute.

“This nothing new to Indian County, right? When the other side wants to breach their duty and responsibility in a contractual agreement. This is nothing new to the tribes in Oklahoma, and they’re handling this just right,” said chief executive officer of the NCAI, Kevin Allis. 

Currently casinos are operating as usual, despite threats from Gov. Stitt to have them shut down or to allow for non-tribal gaming operations to begin operations in the Sooner state.  

On Monday, Federal District Court Judge Timothy D. DeGiusti called for mediation between the two parties with quick upcoming deadlines. Both sides are to suggest three mediators by Feb. 14, with any additional tribes wanting to join the suit doing so by the same deadline. The mediation itself to be “completed or substantially completed not later than March, 31 2020,” wrote the judge. 

Gaylord News is a reporting project of the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication.