Federal Judge Dashes Alaskan Tribe’s Electronic Bingo Ambitions

A federal judge has nixed a bid by Alaska’s Native Village of Eklutna to build a modest gambling hall on its land 20 miles outside of Anchorage.

Out in the cold: A judge in Washington DC upheld a DOI decision that the Eklutna do not have jurisdiction over their land 20 miles from Anchorage, Alaska (pictured). (Image: Brittanica)

The Eklutna sued the Department of the Interior in 2019 after it blocked the plan. The lawsuit argued the DOI had “misapplied relevant standards” and used “outdated legal precedent” in deciding the land in question was not the tribe’s sovereign territory. Under federal law, a tribe must have governmental authority over its land to have gaming rights there.

But Judge Dabney L. Friedrich in the District Court for the District of Columbia ruled the DOI decision had been “rational.”

Though the Tribe may not agree with Interior’s application of law to the facts at hand, the record shows that Interior made a reasoned judgment which the Court will not second-guess,” she wrote. “Thus, the Tribe’s claim that Interior acted arbitrarily and capriciously in applying the Indian lands test set forth in the Sansonetti Opinion must fail.”

Sovereignty Limited

The Sansonetti Opinion is a George H.W. Bush-era legal opinion that examined the extent of tribal jurisdiction in Alaska. It concluded Native Village sovereignty was severely limited.

The Eklutna contended the opinion was out of date and had been superseded by intervening changes in the law. Friedrich rejected that assertion.

Alaskan Tribes have a different legal status from their counterparts in the rest of the US because they’re classified as “corporations” as opposed to sovereign nations.

That’s down to 1971’s federal Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). The Nixon-era law sought to resolve long-standing issues surrounding tribal land claims in the state. It restored 44 million acres of inalienable land and shared $962.5 million among the tribes.

Tribes Miss Out

It was hoped that designating the tribes as corporations would help them engage in the capitalist system and stimulate economic development. But it meant Alaska’s tribes have largely missed out on gaming. The 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act safeguards gaming rights for sovereign nations alone.

Had the Eklutna got its planned electronic bingo hall up and running, it would have been only the second such facility in Alaska. The only other is operated by Metlakatla Indian Community, which declined to sign on to ANCSA.

Alaska has no casinos and no state lottery, but it does license a handful of charitable bingo establishments.

In a statement to the Associated Press, Eklutna President Aaron Leggett described the ruling as “a disappointment” but added the tribe was reviewing its options. It could appeal the decision if it chooses to do so.

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