Source: Journal Gazette (Fort Wayne, IN) - February 15, 2002

Justices to vote on hearing Miamis' case for recognition

Author: Sylvia A. Smith Washington editor

The Supreme Court will decide next week whether to resolve a long-standing beef the Miami Indians have with the federal government about whether the tribe should be officially acknowledged.

At stake are thousands of dollars in services that members of officially recognized tribes are eligible for. Also at stake is the ability official tribes have to open gambling casinos in states where gambling is legal, such as Indiana.

The Indiana-based tribe has fought for years with the Interior Department about its status. In 1992, the department denied the Miamis' request to have their tribal status re-established.

The Miamis say that a series of 18th- and 19th-century treaties between them and the federal government illustrates that Congress considered them a tribe at one time. Since Congress never reneged on that recognition, the Indians say, the Interior Department doesn't have the power to overrule Congress.

The Miamis have long contended that a government attorney wrongly concluded 105 years ago that the Miamis were not a tribe and were ineligible for the same treatment as other American Indian tribes.

The issue was dormant for years, but in 1980 the descendants of Chief Richardville and Chief Little Turtle, about 2,500 of whom continue to live in a swath from Fort Wayne to Lafayette, began fighting to be recognized as a tribe.

Without that recognition, the band's chief, Paul Strack, said in an earlier interview, "we're not even able to protect the graves of our ancestors."

A decade ago Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., was the main congressional champion of legislation to recognize the Miamis as a tribe. But he withdrew that support when he realized that recognition would bring with it the right to operate gambling businesses in Indiana.

Rep. Mark Souder, R-4th, said he is willing to take up the Miamis' cause and introduce legislation that would overrule the Interior Department's decision.

"If the (federal) government hadn't made an error already," Souder has said, "we wouldn't even be addressing the question of whether the Miami of Indiana are a nation. Because they're obviously a nation."

But Souder said that unless the Miamis say they are willing to give up their right to open a gambling casino, the legislation would be killed.

Federally recognized tribes are eligible for various programs for housing, economic development, job training, health care and their lands are exempt from state taxes and other state laws.

That means they can open a gambling casino without any approval from the state legislature or governor as long as the state has authorized gambling, such as a lottery.

Arlinda Locklear, the attorney who filed the Miamis' case with the Supreme Court, said the tribe chose the lawsuit because "getting an act of Congress passed is not easy."

She said winning the court case isn't easy either; she's pessimistic about the likelihood that the justices will vote to hear the case.

If the court won't get involved, Locklear said, "we will try the legislative route."

The Miamis have never said they would open a casino in Indiana if the tribe wins recognition. For other American Indian tribes around the country, gambling has become a lucrative business. Of 561 federally recognized tribes, 198 operate casinos. One estimate puts the Indian-operated gambling revenue at $9.8 billion per year, which is more than Las Vegas' casinos.

"These are billion-dollar operations," Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., said of Indian casinos at a congressional hearing last week. "(Tribal) recognition makes them billionaires over time."

Copyright (c) 2002 The Journal Gazette




   Department of Anthropology
   copyright © 2002 University of Illinois, All rights reserved.
Questions and Comments to Brenda Farnell