Tribe files lawsuit to block Glendale casino

By Jonathan J. Cooper
Phoenix, Arizona (AP) September 2010

The Gila River Indian Community filed a lawsuit last week aimed at blocking another tribe’s proposed casino near Glendale.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Phoenix, alleges that the U.S. Interior Department acted illegally and avoided its own policies when it agreed to take land into trust on behalf of the Tohono O’odham Nation.

The action in July would essentially add the land to the Tohono O’odham reservation. Once effective later this month, it would have moved the tribe one step closer to building a casino on unincorporated land surrounded by Glendale on three sides.

The lawsuit delays the move from taking effect while lawyers dispute it.

The Gila River tribe opposes the casino, saying it would be built on that tribe’s aboriginal territory. The City of Glendale also opposes the project on grounds its residents should have a say over what gets built on the land.

Interior Department spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said the agency won’t comment on a pending lawsuit.

Tohono O’odham Nation chairman Ned Norris Jr. said “this filing is not a surprise as it is a business decision and another attempt to try and delay this important economic development project.

“The position taken by Gila River’s leaders and lawyers is not supported by the law or the facts,” Norris added in a statement. “The Department of the Interior spent more than 18 months closely reviewing all aspects of this issue before moving to take the Nation’s land into trust. This decision is based on a promise to correct a historical wrong ... that the federal government made to the Tohono O’odham Nation. The Nation stands ready to protect and preserve this important commitment.”

The project has sparked controversy because the tribe based near Tucson seeks to build a casino in the Phoenix metro area. The site is about 40 miles from the tribe’s nearest existing reservation land.

When the Interior Department approved the tribe’s land-into-trust application, it also should have decided whether the land is eligible for gaming, the Gila River lawsuit contends.

The tribe also argues that Interior should have conducted thorough environmental and water studies before issuing a ruling.

The suit also contends that the land cannot be taken into trust because it is within the “corporate limits” of Glendale, which would violate federal law.

The Interior Department concluded that the land is outside Glendale’s corporate limits because the city had not annexed it.

The Tohono O’odham Nation has proposed building a Las Vegas-style resort and casino. Norris said the project would “create 6,000 new construction jobs, more than 3,000 permanent jobs, and $300 million in annual economic impacts.”

Leaders in the nearby cities of Tolleson and Peoria have supported the project. But Glendale along with Gov. Jan Brewer and Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl have lined up against it.

The Gila River tribe operates the nearest existing casino. Tohono O’odham officials have said the Gila River opposition is driven by a fear of competition. But Gila River councilman Delane Enos said competitive concerns are secondary.

The modern Gila River and Tohono O’odham tribes are both descendants of the Hohokam. But Enos said the Tohono ancestors historically stayed south while the Gila River ancestors settled near the disputed territory.

“It’s kind of disrespectful for them to come out and lay this claim to this land,” Enos said.