As two small tribes seek to build casinos, Oklahoma lawmakers asked to approve compacts

Compacts would allow new casinos in Logan and Oklahoma counties

By: - October 24, 2023 5:32 pm
The flags of tribal nations within Oklahoma wave in the breeze against a blue sky

Lawmakers are slated to consider two new gaming compacts during a joint committee meeting Wednesday. (Photo by Kyle Phillips/For Oklahoma Voice)

OKLAHOMA CITY — Lawmakers might have to decide whether two small Oklahoma tribes should have the right to build casinos outside their traditional boundaries.

Supporters contend that allowing the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians and the Kialegee Tribal Town to offer gaming in Oklahoma and Logan counties would be an economic boon for their members and Oklahomans. They note that both compact agreements have already received the required approval from the  U.S. Department of Interior.

Critics say the Oklahoma Supreme Court invalidated the same compacts and contend that lawmakers cannot legally approve them.

On Wednesday, the Legislature’s 10-member Joint Committee on State-Tribal Relations might wade into the fray. Members plan to hold a rare meeting to consider four intergovernmental agreements, including the two gaming compacts that Gov. Kevin Stitt negotiated in 2020. 

The new agreements came as Stitt feuded with leaders of other federally recognized tribes over the exclusivity fee rates that the state receives in exchange for allowing them the sole right to operate casinos.

The committee is designed to serve as a legislative check on executive power by reviewing proposed intergovernmental compacts, including those negotiated by the Governor’s Office. State law requires a compact receive approval from the joint committee before it can be submitted to the federal Department of the Interior. 

The state attorney general, though, advised that the committee doesn’t have the authority to grant agreements the state Supreme Court already voided.

David Cook, the Kialegee Tribal Town administrator, said lawmakers are in a “very tough position.” On one hand, federal authorities, which govern tribes, have given the go-ahead, but the state’s Supreme Court has not.

“I don’t pity the joint commission at all because they’re going to have to make a decision based upon two different decisions itself, one saying that you can’t and one saying you can,” Cook said. 

He said the federal decision should take precedence when lawmakers meet to consider the compacts.

The 735-member tribe, which is headquartered in the Hughes County city of Wetumka, was recognized federally under the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act in 1941. But despite federal promises to grant land, the tribe’s members remain essentially landless, he said. 

The tribal town is within what is now the modern day Muscogee Nation, and the lands went to that tribe, Cook said. The Kialegee Tribal Town is governed under the provisions of the Muscogee Nation, which Cook said opposes the casino plans, as do other influential Oklahoma tribes that have large gaming interests.

He said the issue also is embroiled in federal litigation.

“What we are hoping for with this gaming compact is the ability to actually go out and have some form of economic development,” Cook said. “It’s a benefit to not only the state, but also our tribal people as well.”  

The median income in the Wetumka area is less than $1,000 a month, and many of its residents live in intergenerational homes with as many as 20 people, he said. 

Under the new compacts, he said the tribe is allowed to build a casino on Muscogee reservation land in Oklahoma County east of Choctaw Road. That’s about 80 miles away from tribal headquarters.

Kialegee Tribal Town Mekko Stephanie Yahola said Tuesday that the tribe is optimistic that the commission will approve its  compact. 

The state’s compact with the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians would allow the tribe to build a casino in Logan County, roughly 150 miles away from their Tahlequah headquarters.

The tribe’s chief did not return a message seeking comment as of deadline.

Stitt announced in 2020 that he had inked new gaming compacts with the two tribes. Both agreed to pay a much higher percentage of revenue and in return were granted the right to build casinos in other parts of the state, according to the compact agreements. 

But it’s not clear if lawmakers will OK the new compacts.  

In an Oct. 23 letter to sent committee members, Attorney General Gentner Drummond said “proper respect for the law compels the conclusion that the Joint Committee lacks the authority to make valid that which the Oklahoma Supreme Court earlier declared to be invalid.”

Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, said he hoped Stitt will “rescind his request” for the committee to vote on the compacts in light of Drummond’s recommendation.

Stitt has continued to urge lawmakers to approve both compacts and make them legally binding.

“They are two of the poorer tribes,” said Abegail Cave, a Stitt spokesperson. “They haven’t had the access to the gaming industry that the five larger tribes have had so this would be a pretty big game changer for them if they were afforded these compacts.”

She said that support for the compacts will allow smaller tribes equal opportunity to generate revenue to care for their members.

“It’s disappointing to hear rumors that they would succumb to pressure by the AG,” Cave said later in a statement. “The Joint Committee is made up of elected officials that can choose to work with the smaller tribes or partner with the AG to protect the five wealthiest tribes in Oklahoma.”

House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, said the committee should consider the compacts even though the state Supreme Court invalidated them.

“The (committee) should fully address the legislative process so there is no doubt, at any level or branch of government, as to any question of invalidity,” McCall said in a statement.

In a statement, Cherokee Nation Attorney General Chad Harsha said the “matter is already settled.” The gaming compacts did not comply with state law.

Officials with the Chickasaw and Muscogee nations did not respond to a request for comment.


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Janelle Stecklein
Janelle Stecklein

Janelle Stecklein is editor of Oklahoma Voice. An award-winning journalist, Stecklein has been covering Oklahoma government and politics since moving to the state in 2014.