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Indian Gambling's Spread Leads To Heated States' Rights Dispute

THE recent spread of gambling to many Indian reservations in the United States has heightened the historic tension in the US between states' rights and federal control.

By resisting tribal gaming, states are challenging the long-standing federal control over Indian affairs.

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In Arizona last week, the Legislature passed a defiant state law banning such gambling anywhere in the state.

The move came after the state of Arizona and several tribes had turned to a federal mediator to resolve their dispute over gambling. The mediator ruled in favor of casino-style gambling on Indian reservations.

"The state entered into the mediation knowing the decision could go either way. They lost and now they are changing the rules," said Charles Keechi, chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association.

Arizona Gov. J. Fife Symington (R) supports the new state law. Mr. Keechi said the governor's action was "unfair and racially motivated." Eventually US Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt will approve or disapprove the mediator's decision. Under federal law the interior secretary also approves gambling compacts.

But Kurt Bluedog, a Sisseton-Wappeton Sioux who is a tribal attorney, says he "wouldn't be surprised if the US Supreme Court would have to make the final decision" to clarify where authority lies in allowing tribal gaming.

All across the United States, Indian tribes are turning to gambling to provide incomes and jobs for economically deprived reservations. In 1982, only six reservations offered some form of gambling. By the end of 1992, more than 110 tribes maintained gaming operations.

Annual wagering is now estimated to be as high as $5 billion on reservations. Much of the gambling revenue supports tribal programs and provides much-needed employment.

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When the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was passed by Congress in 1988, states were authorized by the Interior Department to negotiate gambling compacts with tribes wanting to start or expand gaming enterprises.

But Arizona and a number of other states are resisting Indian initiatives. Last week a delegation of five governors - Mr. Symington of Arizona, Roy Romer (D) of Colorado, Joan Finney (D) of Kansas, Bob Miller (D) of Nevada, and Bruce Sundlun (D) of Rhode Island - had a two-hour meeting with Interior Secretary Babbitt about states' rights and Indian gambling.

"What happens within a state ought to be decided by that state's citizens," Governor Romer told reporters. "It ought not to have a dictate from the federal government as to what should be the form of gaming and gambling within that state." He advocated congressional action "because we're spending hundreds of millions in the courts" on litigation.

In the complex and historically troubled relationship between tribes and the federal government, Indians consider themselves and their reservations as sovereign nations. Yet as late as 1985 the US Supreme Court has stated that "the power of the federal government over Indian tribes is plenary" - i.e., full and complete.

1989 report by the US Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs reveals the continuing ambiguity toward Indian status. "Because Congress has never fully rejected the paternalism of the 19th century, the US government maintains a stifling bureaucratic presence in Indian country, and fails to deal with tribal governments as responsible partners in our federalist system," the report states.

Keechi, chief of the Delaware nation in Oklahoma, said late last year: "Generally in the past the states had little to do with Indian tribes because we have a government-to-government relationship with the US government. Now we should eliminate the state [compacts] because they are compounding our problems with their different laws pertaining to gambling. I think we need a uniform gaming compact for all tribes at the federal level."

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