The UKB Casino Battle


United Keetoowah Band citizens on Aug. 31, 2013, protest the Cherokee Nation and UKB officials for the closing of the Keetoowah Cherokee Casino. Federal court officials have postponed a May 9 hearing regarding UKB gaming operations within the Nation’s jurisdiction to July 25. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX

The battle whether the UKB has the right to operate gaming has been going on for years, but it all took a dramatic turn last year when on August 30th the UKB Casino closed.  The situation involved four major forces, the state of Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation, the UKB and the BIA.   It pitted issues like the loss of two hundred UKB jobs and the power of the BIA against the sovereignty of the Cherokee Nation.

The Cherokee Nation has always claimed the UKB violated their sovereignty rights since 1986 when the UKB Casino first opened.  The UKB has argued from their historical perspective that they share jurisdictional rights with the Cherokee Nation.  The BIA takes the position that they have the authority to decide who has sovereignty and jurisdictional rights.  And the State of Oklahoma wants to enforce their power as regulators of gaming in its territory.

The clash of legal questions has created a difficult situation for all involved and has led to accusations of fraud, betrayal, and power grabbing.  These issues have been stirring in federal court for years.

From reading the articles in the sidebar, the timeline appears to flow like this:

2000 – The UKB obtained an injunction from then-Cherokee County District Judge John Garrett that kept law enforcement from imposing gaming law violations on the casino.

2004 – The state of Oklahoma sued the UKB to stop its gaming operations.

2005 – The case was moved to United States District Court and the UKB was able to continue gaming with a federal temporary injunction while the land-into-trust issue was resolved.

2011 – The NIGC (National Indian Gaming Commission) informed the UKB that it did not recognize the casino as an Indian gaming operation because it was sitting on non-trust (state) land.

June 2012 – Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt and the UKB signed an agreement requiring the tribe pay $2 million in damages for operating the business without a compact.  The U.S. Interior Department granted the tribe’s application to place the casino property into trust.

July 2012 – The UKB reached an agreement with the state of Oklahoma to either cease gaming or have the land taken into trust by July 31, 2013. Litigation ensued between the parties in Federal courts over the land-into-trust issue involving the National Indian Gaming Commission.

July 2013 – Oklahoma’s Attorney General granted the UKB a 30-day extension for trust status, making the new deadline Aug. 30.

July 2013 – Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker offered the UKB two options to keep its gaming operations afloat.

July 2013 – The Cherokee Nation filed a petition in federal court to prevent the Bureau of Indian Affairs from placing the UKB’s casino land into trust.

August 2013 – A preliminary temporary injunction was granted against the UKB in federal court against the U.S. Department of Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs.

August 2013 – Chief Baker offers a plan to absorb displaced UKB workers.

August 2013 – United Keetoowah Band leaders voted to negotiate an agreement with the Cherokee Nation

August 30, 2013  – The UKB Casino closes its doors.

Oct 2013 – UKB halts casino negotiations with the Cherokee Nation

Dec 2013 – Cherokee Nation Attorney General Todd Hembree filed a brief challenging the 2012 decision by the U.S. Department of the Interior that granted trust status for the United Keetoowah Band’s casino.

Jan 2014 –  UKB Chief Wickliffe releases statement against the Cherokee Nation and Chief Baker

July 2014 – The Cherokee Nation and UKB presented oral arguments over a land-in-trust application.

Sept 2014 – Federal Judge Frizzell will make a ruling on land-in-trust application.

This issue has stirred up controversy from many officials in both the Cherokee Nation and the UKB. When the Cherokee Nation filed their injunction in 2013, UKB attorneys responded by saying:

“In its never-ending quest to destroy its Cherokee brothers and sisters, the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma has this day filed a request that the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma enter an order to prohibit the Department of Interior from taking land, presently owned by the UKB, into trust. The effect of this injunction, if granted, would immediately throw some 300 Keetoowahs out of work.”

Chief Baker offered the UKB  two options. The first option was to put the UKB Casino land into trust on behalf of the Cherokee Nation and have them sign a 99-year lease.  The second option was to move the UKB gaming facility to Cherokee Nation land south of Tahlequah. In both options, the UKB would retain the profits and its employee base.

Tribal Councilor Cara Cowan Watts seemed surprised at the time by Chief Baker’s compromise announcement. She stated:

“It is hard for me to comment on a settlement which I read about in a news release. UKB has no jurisdiction within the Cherokee Nation or right to govern within the Cherokee Nation’s boundaries… A lease of Cherokee Nation trust land does not meet IGRA (Indian Gaming Regulatory Act) Indian land requirements because only the Cherokee Nation can game within our tribal boundaries.


“Even if it was legal under IGRA, the Cherokee Nation must have the ability to oversee gaming through our tribal gaming commission, transparency into budgets, spending and operations, taxation and at minimum recovery of overhead costs associated with oversight let alone sharing in profits.”

Chief Baker also offered a plan for the Cherokee Nation to absorb the loss of UKB jobs. He said:

“Welcoming our Keetoowah brothers and sisters with open arms is simply the right thing to do…We want to calm any fears they may have and let them know we will do everything in our power to make sure any transition is as smooth as possible.”

Cherokee Nation Attorney General Todd Hembree has maintained all along that the Cherokee Nation’s actions are driven by constitutional law.  He has stated:

“The attempt by the BIA to place land into trust for another tribe or band of Indians in our jurisdiction is contrary to law, and we intend to prove that in court…The Cherokee Nation will do everything in its power to preserve the integrity of our sovereignty.”

In October of 2013, negotiations broke down between the Cherokee Nation and the UKB.  Chief Wickliffe said it was over jurisdictional concerns and stated:

“…because the CNO has continued to take historically inaccurate positions which ignore history of the Keetoowah Cherokee Indians, the UKB Council decided in its October Council meeting to cease all negotiations with CNO regarding our casino.”

In January of 2013, Chief Wickliffe issued a strong statement levied against the Cherokee Nation and Chief Baker.  He ended his editorial by saying:

Speaking for our Keetoowah people who have been hurt by such cruel treatment, I will not in any way endorse Bill John Baker’s campaign again. And we will continue to fight to resolve the trust status of our casino and our community services parcel.

In the latest court hearing August 25th, 2014, both the Cherokee Nation and the UKB presented their case for the land-into-trust under new circumstances. A court date is set for September 8, 2014, to decide this issue.

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