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Tribal lawsuit over land a bargaining tool to get Ohio casino

Updated:
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) The Eastern Shawnee tribe of Oklahoma sued Monday to regain about 146 square miles of western Ohio the tribe says was illegally taken in 19th century treaties.

The tribe's attorney said the aim was not to seize cities and dairy farms but to negotiate a deal to open casinos where the tribe has been invited, a tactic Ohio's top lawyer insists won't work.

The claims in the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Toledo, include the entire city of Wapakoneta, parts of Lima and rural land near Bellefontaine. The tribe would seek title to the land and repayment of taxes and other revenue the state has collected on it since taking it over in 1831.

The lawsuit is an extreme step aimed at forcing the state to negotiate with the Shawnee over opening casinos in sites where local leaders want the tribe, said Mason Morisset, the tribe's attorney. Officials from Botkins in western Ohio and Lordstown in northeast Ohio attended the lawsuit news conference in Columbus on Monday. Lorain also has expressed interest in a casino.

``The Eastern Shawnee did not want to take this step,'' Morisset said. ``Filing a lawsuit of this type sullies everyone's title to their land.''

Morisset said he has fought and won several similar lawsuits before the U.S. Supreme Court. They almost always end with settlements giving tribes money or other land to replace the tribal land.

``There might be a possibility of settling these claims for land elsewhere that would be suitable for a tribal presence,'' Morisset said.

Attorney General Jim Petro said he would vigorously fight the lawsuit and try to stop casino gambling from entering the state.

``I don't like being bullied,'' Petro said, adding that he's not worried about landowners losing their titles.

Even if the tribe gains Ohio land, Petro said, it wouldn't be allowed to operate a casino because the state constitution forbids for-profit gambling.

``They have no ability to negotiate from the position they are in,'' Petro said.

The lawsuit claims two reservations covering 145 square miles were improperly ceded through treaties that did not include all the signatures of Shawnee chiefs who had signed an earlier treaty creating the reservations. Deeds to another square mile were given to two private landowners in 1815 in violation of federal law, the lawsuit says.

The complaint also seeks restoration of hunting, fishing and gathering rights in about 36 counties in the southwestern quarter of the state.

Farrell Knief, 70, doesn't object to a casino but says he'll fight to keep the 87-acre farm he bought in the early 1980s. The farm, less than five miles south of Indian Lake, is within the square mile with the disputed deeds.

``We've spent a major amount of money on it,'' he said. ``It was bought legally, and it was all done through the courts, and it belongs to me.

``I've put too much sweat and blood into it. I'm going to keep it.''

The Shawnee lived along the Ohio River but moved north and west in the 1700s after various clashes with Europeans. Tribal names are reflected in present day city names such as Piqua and Wapakoneta, an Anglicized spelling of the Wapaghkonetta Reservation named in the lawsuit. The U.S. Army forced the tribe out to Missouri and then Oklahoma.

Songs and stories still tell of Ohio and the Shawnee chief Tecumseh's pledge that the seventh generation would return, said Betty Watson, chairwoman of the tribe's casino developing business.

``We are the seventh generation,'' she said.

The Shawnee splintered into smaller groups, and the 2,300 members of the Eastern Shawnee are scattered throughout the country, Chief Charles Enyart said. About 670 are in the eastern tip of Oklahoma. They operate a small casino in Seneca, Mo., that does well but is limited in the types of games it offers.

Members want to return where ancestors are buried, Enyart said.

``The land is very sacred,'' he said. ``We're also business people.''
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