Oklahoma Indian tribe files lawsuit in quest for Pennsylvania gambling rights


Thursday, January 15th 2004, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) _ An Oklahoma-based Indian tribe filed a federal lawsuit Thursday to formally stake its claim to 315 acres of land in northeastern Pennsylvania in a quest to operate a gambling facility in the state.

The Delaware Nation of Anadarko, Okla., claims to have ancestral ties to a parcel of land now occupied by a Crayola crayon factory and private homes.

It contends that the land was granted to Delaware Nation Chief Moses Tunda Tetamy by the descendants of William Penn in 1738, and that there is no record of the tribe's title to the land ever changing hands, despite the claims of other landowners during the last 200 years.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, comes as state lawmakers prepare to resume a debate over legalizing slot-machine gambling in Pennsylvania to raise money to reduce local residential property taxes.

The Delaware Nation and the Delaware Tribe of Indians of Bartlesville, Okla., which is not listed as a plaintiff in the lawsuit, in May announced their intentions to pursue gambling rights in Pennsylvania.

Both are federally recognized Indian tribes, which are permitted under federal law to establish gambling venues on tribal lands to which they have valid claims.

The tribes still hope their goal can be accomplished through legislation rather than litigation, said Kevin Feeley, a public relations consultant representing both tribes.

``I think that ultimately that's the quickest way to resolve it. This (lawsuit) is not something we pulled the trigger on in any fast way. We've been watching and waiting and trying to be part of the discussion,'' Feeley said during a telephone news conference with reporters.

Stephen A. Cozen, an attorney for the Delaware Nation, estimated that it could take as long as 18 months for the case to go to trial.

The Delaware Nation sought the assistance of Stephen Dow Beckham, an ethno-historian and history professor at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., who has aided other Indian tribes, to research its claim.

The lawsuit claims that Tetamy lived on the property until his death in 1761, when the deed was transferred to his son, Nicholas, who remained there with his family. The last known time that any of Tetamy's descendants occupied the land was around 1801, but there are no records to verify that it was transferred to anyone else with federal approval, according to the lawsuit.

``This is a very substantial claim, and I think it's going to be very interesting for the court to examine the record,'' Beckham said.

If a federal court approves the claim, the state would have to negotiate a compact that would enable the Delawares to use the land _ or property obtained in a land swap _ as their basis for establishing their right to pursue gambling in Pennsylvania.

In the legislative discussions, Democratic state Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, D-Philadelphia, has insisted that any gambling bill include a provision that would set aside a slots license for two years for a qualified Indian tribe that agrees to be regulated and taxed by the state rather than pursue the right to open a full-fledged casino that would compete with the slots parlors.

Gov. Ed Rendell has said he believes there is insufficient support in the Legislature for such a provision. Rendell's spokeswoman, Kate Philips, had no immediate comment on the lawsuit Thursday.

Fumo's spokesman, Gary Tuma, said that although there have been staff discussions about a proposal, the senator and Rendell have had no negotiations about including it in any gambling bill.

``Sen. Fumo is certainly willing to work on finding a solution ... he hasn't really heard any sort of substantive public-policy reason for not including it,'' Tuma said. ``We'll say this: There has not been a case in any state that has legalized gambling in which an Indian tribe has pressed a claim and failed.''

The lawsuit does not include the Delaware Tribe. It already has the right to pursue gambling operations such as bingo, but not full-fledged casino gambling, because it has been designated as a ``restored tribe'' by the federal government and does not need to prove a land claim, said Luis Figueredo of the Delaware Casino Development and Management, an investment group that represents both tribes.