In his piece, Fletcher goes on to outline three potentially significant legal obstacles: the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ “trust acquisition hurdles”; language in the Land Claims Settlement Act provision that says the Interior Department “shall be held in trust” (the word “shall” may not mean “has to”); and a provision in the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act that would require the Sault Tribe to submit its application to the Interior Department after “a prior written agreement between the Tribe and the State’s other federally recognized Indian Tribes that provides for each of the other Tribes to share in the revenue of the off reservation gaming facility.”
A fourth hurdle, Fletcher wrote, is that the Sault Tribe “has to exercise governmental authority over the land, according to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Sault Tribe has no history in this area, let alone a governmental presence.”
I haven’t really expounded on a possible fifth hurdle, which is really related to the mandatory trust acquisition language. I can assure you Congress would never have intended that the Sault Tribe would be able to use this provision to buy land for off-reservation gaming purposes (especially, way off-reservation gaming purposes. See the legislative history here (Judgment Funds Hearing), which is virtually silent as to gaming. [Although to be fair, Rep. Kildee says his grandfather from the Traverse City area remembers when Indians had more “mobility” than they do now.] Ultimately, legislative history doesn’t trump the plain language. Usually.
Sault Tribe has to worry that a court construing the Secretary’s authority under the so-called mandatory trust acquisition language is unlimited, and perhaps unconstitutional as applied to this circumstance. The judgment funds settle treaty claims related to the 1836 treaty signatories. The 1836 treaty ceded territories do not include Lansing. And frankly, the Sault Tribe and Bay Mills have only a tenuous claim to lower peninsula territory, given that they are located in the Upper Peninsula, and importantly, there are already three federally recognized Lower Peninsula tribes who are 1836 treaty signatories. I mentioned in yesterday’s post that Lansing is small potatoes compared to other metropolitan areas, like Chicago and Cleveland, that don’t have Indian casinos now. Nothing stops Sault Tribe from going there with their casino proposals, and that fact alone will make a court wary of allowing Sault Tribe, Lansing, and Interior (if Interior goes along with it) to set aside trust lands in Lansing.
I recall this comment from the Eighth Circuit in a different context (involving the Secretary’s authority under Section 5 of the Indian Reorganization Act) but it makes the point here as well:
By its literal terms, the statute permits the Secretary to purchase a factory, an office building, a residential subdivision, or a golf course intrust for an Indian tribe, thereby removing these properties from state and local tax rolls. Indeed, it would permit the Secretary to purchase the Empire State Building in trust for a tribal chieftain as a wedding present. There are no perceptible “boundaries,” no “intelligible principles,” within the four corners of the statutory language that constrain this delegated authority-except that the acquisition must be “for Indians.” It delegates unrestricted power to acquire land from private citizens for the private use and benefit of Indian tribes or individual Indians.
It’s on page 882 here (SD v DOI). I can easily see a court rejecting the plain language reading the Tribe will want them to make on these grounds. It would be a terrible precedent for all of Indian country. But tribes take risky actions in desperate times, I suppose.