Gila River Indian Community Attacks Sister Tribe With Federal Lawsuit; Hopes to Block Creation of Tohono O'odham Nation Reservation in W. Valley

The Gila River Indian Community filed a lawsuit today against the U.S. Department of Interior, challenging the department's decision to turn about 50 acres of land in the West Valley into a reservation for the Tohono O'odham Nation.

It's part of an ongoing fight between the sister tribes that started last year when the Nation announced plans to build the state's largest casino in the West Valley. Glendale city officials have also joined the fight and side with the GIla River.

In this lawsuit, the Gila River argues that the fed's decision is "arbitrary and capricious" because it failed to address whether or not the Tohono O'odham could use the land for gaming.

"Arbitrary and capricious" is legal jargon for making a decision based on unreasonable grounds or without any proper consideration of circumstances.

In this case, those circumstances include that the Tohono O'odham Nation may not be asking for permission to conduct gaming, but it definitely has plans create a casino on that site.

The feds didn't make a decision about gaming because the Tohono O'odham didn't ask for one.

When the Tohono O'odham filed its application in January 2009 for the land near 91st and Northern avenues to be taken into trust, it initially sought a federal decision on whether or not the land could be used for gaming.

The Nation later withdrew that part of its application and just asked that the land become part of its reservation.

The Gila argue that the Department of Interior should have weighed Tohono O'odham's plans into their decision.

Glendale officials are also expected to file a lawsuit.

In a press release, Gila River Governor William Rhodes said that "any conflict with a sister tribe is something we take on reluctantly, but the stakes are too high to remain silent. The interim decision Interior made is another step in a legal battle we intend to fight.
Rhetoric aside, the Gila simply opposes the feds decision because the Tohono O'odham proposed casino poses an economic threat to the nearby casinos operated by the Gila River Indian Community.

Glendale, too, is concerned about a resort-style casino taking business away from Westgate City Center, the city's sports and entertainment center. Glendale has invested about $490 million in west Glendale, and relies on sales tax revenues generate by Westgate to pay off its debts.

Creatively spinning the truth has become an art in this debate.

Consider assertions by the Gila River that the "will of Arizona's voters and the balance of Indian gaming at stake..." and that "Arizona voters made a promise to keep casinos out of neighborhoods."

These are references to Proposition 202, which was approved by voters in 2002.

While that law limited gaming to existing reservations, it included an exception that allowed gaming on reservations created after 1988 if they were part of a land settlement claim.

The Tohono O'odham says it has such a claim. And the federal government agrees.

The claim stems from a dam built by the feds near Gila Bend that flooded and rendered useless most of the Tohono O'odham's San Lucy reservation.

It wasn't until decades later that the feds passed a law to allow the tribe to replace the destroyed land -- acre for acre -- with new land in either Pima, Pinal or Maricopa counties. The federal law ordered the Secretary of the Department of Interior to take the replacement land into trust and deem it "a Federal Indian Reservation for all purposes."

Those facts aside, the Gila's lawsuit claims that the Tohono O'odham is "opportunistically buying commercially attractive casino sites far from their reservations and then having them designated Indian lands."

So, what, the Tohono O'odham leaders should have gone after land that was commercially unattractive? Perhaps a site riddled with hazardous waste?

And while the Gila River is trying to make it sound like there is something nefarious about the Tohono O'odham buying land "far from their reservation" ... "more than 100 miles from its tribal headquarters south of Tucson," federal law allows the tribe to select land in Maricopa County.

The Gila also say that Tohono O'odham leaders want to build a casino "in a Glendale neighborhood."

The land purchased by the Tohono O'odham is not even in Glendale, so it can't be "in a Glendale neighborhood"? The land is one of those parcels often referred to as a "county island" because it sits, unincorporated by any city, in Maricopa County.

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo