State, White Earth band spar over video gambling machinesby Tom Scheck, Minnesota Public Radio
The state of Minnesota and the White Earth Band of Ojibwe are at odds over who has say over video bingo machines on property within the reservation. Tribal officials say they have the right to own and operate the machines. But state officials believe differently, and worry that other tribes will follow White Earth's lead and put the gambling machines on their tribal land.
St. Paul, Minn. — This isn't the first dispute between state officials and tribal leaders over sovereignty issues and governance. The latest spat is over the charitable gambling that's being done on the White Earth Indian Reservation.
Tribal Chairwoman Erma Vizenor says matter of factly that the state has no say on what goes on within the tribe's borders.
"The tribe's position is we will not concede one inch of our jurisdiction on our right to regulate within the exterior boundaries of the reservation," says Vizenor.
The White Earth Indian Reservation is a checkerboard of land that is owned by the tribe, and land that is owned exclusively by tribal and non-tribal members. The land that is not owned by the tribe, but is on the reservation, is known as fee land.
While Vizenor believes all of the land within the reservation's boundaries is regulated by the tribe, the Pawlenty administration has a different opinion.
Pawlenty and U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger asked the National Indian Gaming Commission to decide if the state or the tribe has jurisdiction over pull tab sales on White Earth's fee land. The commission ruled last March that the tribe has the final say, since the charitable gambling is being done within the borders of the reservation.
What complicates things is that the tribe has shifted some of its charitable gambling from pull tabs to video bingo machines. Vizenor says 100 video bingo machines are operating on seven different sites. The machines look like slot machines but fall under charitable gambling, because players play against each other for most of the money.
Slot machines are operated by a casino, which sets the odds and takes a cut of the bet. Vizenor says while the machines are different, the oversight is the same -- and the tribe's in charge.
"It's the tribe's position that we have the authority and the power, as determined by Supreme Court cases, to regulate gaming within the exterior boundaries of this reserveration," says Vizenor.
But those within the Pawlenty administration say the matter isn't settled. They say U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger sides with them, and disagrees with the ruling by the gaming commission. Neither Heffelfinger nor his spokeswoman returned calls for this report.
Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner Michael Campion has been leading the state's efforts on the issue. Campion says several members of the Pawlenty administration met with tribal and federal officials to discuss the matter on Tuesday. He says there's disagreement over who has jurisdiction.
"Quite frankly, the complexity of these laws and these issues provides ample opportunity for different interpretations, and really that's where we're at," says Campion.
Campion says the state may appeal the ruling by the gambling commission, but he says it's not clear who would hear that appeal.
Campion says the state is pursuing the issue because they are worried that White Earth's video bingo machines could open up the door for other tribes to follow suit. Campion is worried where that could lead.
"It certainly might have the potential to do that, or any proliferation," says Campion. "Does it or does it not impact public safety or our Department of Public Safety? The potential is there. But again, this was an attempt to add some clarity to some multiple issues."
While Campion and other members of the Pawlenty administration wring their hands on the impact of the machines and how to proceed, White Earth tribal officials believe they're on solid legal ground.