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Archive for Monday, September 1, 2003

A game of blackmail?

The high-stakes game of casino gambling is inspiring the use of some unsavory tactics.

September 1, 2003

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If members of the Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma really want to establish a casino in Wyandotte County, Kansas, last week's opening of a makeshift gambling establishment in downtown Kansas City, Kan., probably didn't further their cause.

The Oklahoma tribe has been trying for several years to gain a gambling foothold in Kansas. Although the tribe has no reservation in Kansas, it claims a number of historical ties to the state. After being frustrated in attempts to gain approval for a full casino in Kansas City, the tribe proposed using the only piece of land it had a clear claim to, the historic Huron Cemetery. The cemetery, established in the 1840s, now sits in the center of downtown Kansas City, Kan.

The plan to build an elevated casino over the graves met with stiff opposition and was abandoned, but the Wyandottes have pursued a number of other possibilities. The tribe's preferred plan is to establish a larger casino and resort near the Kansas Speedway in Wyandotte County.

The Kansas Legislature has opposed that plan for a number of reasons. Some legislators simply don't want to expand gambling in the state, especially to land that isn't part of a federal Indian reservation. Some also object to allowing the Oklahoma Wyandotte tribe to compete with the four Indian tribes based in Kansas. The Kickapoo, Sac and Fox, Iowa and Prairie Band Potawatomi all operate casinos on their reservations in the state.

The Wyandottes' plan had received a friendlier reception from the Unified Government of Kansas City, Kan., and Wyandotte County because officials saw the casino as a positive economic development measure. However, the opening of what an attorney for the unified government referred to as a "miniature bingo shack" next to the Huron Cemetery and across the street from Kansas City, Kan., City Hall may have changed that.

The tribe's attorney responded to critics by saying, "There would be better places to be, but this is it for now. The tribe would always be interested in negotiations to move somewhere else in the county."

It's easy to see why officials would perceive blackmail as part of the Wyandotte strategy. By planting a gambling operation in an undesirable location, they appear to be trying to force the hands of state and local officials to clear the way for a larger casino elsewhere.

It might work, or it might backfire. City and county officials have been supportive of the Wyandotte proposals, but they probably don't like being backed into a corner. Without their support, the tribe will have little chance of receiving the necessary state cooperation for a full casino operation.

Other issues are involved, including a Wyandotte claim on nearly 2,000 acres in the Fairfax Industrial District of Kansas City, Kan., including the site of a General Motors auto assembly plant. The tribe already has acknowledged that claim was filed to provide further leverage for a full casino.

The legal morass being created in this case raises many questions. Should states be forced to negotiate gambling compacts with tribes that don't even have reservations within their borders? Many tribes passed through Kansas at one time or another. Should any of them be able to buy land and set up a gambling operation anywhere in the state? What is the state's role in regulating such casinos?

Kansas isn't the only state facing these issues. Federal agency rulings have helped create much of this controversy; perhaps those agencies can help sort the situation out.

Most Kansans want to be fair to Indian tribes that have been treated badly in the past, but blackmail tactics like those being employed by the Wyandottes of Oklahoma don't win friends and influence legislators.

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