Tribe's game center going unregulated

Sunday, December 2nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. (AP) _ A tribal gaming center that is not located on tribal land is largely unregulated by state and federal officials.

The center is operated by the United Keetoowah Band of the Cherokees, a separate group from the Cherokee Nation.

Although Indian gaming is supposed to be regulated, neither the National Indian Gaming Commission nor state authorities regulate the center. State officials say they don't have jurisdiction.

The tribe has been holding bingo games at its gaming center for several years. But the games were small, thus avoiding government scrutiny.

The tribe later expanded its gaming to include several Class II electronic games. The games are legal in Oklahoma, but are supposed to follow state and federal laws.

Because the Keetoowahs' site is not on Indian land, no one outside the tribe has been regulating their games. Tribal officials said the Keetoowahs will police themselves until state and federal authorities sort things out.

At issue is where the gaming hall is located. The Keetoowahs bought the land in 1992. The tribe is hoping to have the parcel deemed Indian trust land, which would exempt them from property taxes.

Most tribes have built casinos on Indian trust land. While the tribes must obey state and federal gaming laws, only federal regulators have the authority to enforce those laws on Indian land.

The main enforcer is the National Indian Gaming Commission. But the commission's power is limited to Indian trust lands. By operating on non-Indian land, the tribe also avoids the state gaming commission.

In a letter to the tribe, commission attorney Kevin Washburn said his agency will ``leave the question of whether the land is subject to state gambling laws to the appropriate state officials.''

While officials debate who should have jurisdiction, the games play on. The lack of clarity on the issue frustrates the Keetoowahs' neighbor, the Cherokee Nation.

The Cherokees have several gaming centers, all on Indian trust land, and all of which follow state and federal law.

``If it's the state's position that you can operate a gaming center outside Indian lands, we'd like to know about it,'' said Mike Miller, Cherokee Nation spokesman.

Assistant U.S. attorney Linda Epperly said that as long as the tribe doesn't use illegal Class III games and keeps a low profile, they'll likely continue to operate without regulatory interference.