BOSTON — Florida's Seminole Indians, like tribes in seven other states that want to open gambling casinos on reservations, are stuck. Rebuffed recently by the US Supreme Court in their efforts to sue states to allow gambling, the tribes now are turning to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt for an answer.
The spread of casino gambling on native American lands has intensified a debate that is as old as the United States itself: how to resolve conflicts between the federal government, states, and tribes. That question underlies a hearing today of the US Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, which will examine the impact of the court ruling and the issues facing Mr. Babbitt. In his role as Interior secretary, Babbitt oversees all Indian affairs in the US.
Last month's Supreme Court decision strongly affirmed states' rights, but the ruling did not clarify how to resolve disputes between states and tribes that are at loggerheads over casinos.
"The states have no other place to go, and neither do we," says Rick Hill, president of the National Indian Gaming Association. "But I think Babbitt will probably stall on his decision until after the presidential election." A Babbitt spokesman says the secretary is not expected to decide a format for settling state-tribe conflicts for several months.
At stake for the tribes is the potential for millions of dollars of gambling income; for states, it's their ability to keep a casino-free environment within their borders.
Since 1988, 146 tribes have negotiated gambling compacts with states. Gambling on Indian reservations is now a $6 billion a year industry.
In Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida, experts say, the Supreme Court ducked the issue of how to resolve the state-tribe conflict. What the court did was to invalidate only the part of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (passed by Congress in 1987) that allowed tribes to sue states. The rest of the act, detailing conditions and regulations for gambling, remains intact for now.
Babbitt's decision or any later action in Congress could add to the changes brought by the court. If the rest of the act were invalidated, all issues would revert to the case known as California v. Cabazon. Under that case, states have no authority to regulate gambling on Indian land if gambling is already permitted outside the reservation.
"Indians took political heat for years because they were like welfare cases," says Peter d'Errico, a professor of native American legal studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "Now even more heat is being generated because they are becoming independent."
Rules in the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act stipulate that tribes can use revenues from casinos only for tribal government purposes, such as education, economic development, health care, and infrastructure improvement.
As far back as 1831, the Supreme Court recognized Indian tribes as sovereign nations. But public hostility to the concept and shifting political decisions over the years produced a complex tangle of federal laws that sometimes support Indian sovereignty and sometimes weaken it.
"The law that made legislation to let states and tribes reach compacts over gambling was poorly written and infringed on the sovereignty of the tribes," says Clara Sue Kidwell, director of native American studies at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.