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Jun
11th

Tribal Sovereignty and Bingo Halls

Way back in 1823 U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall ruled that North America’s “savage” natives could not legally sell their lands. Marshall set the stage for the treatment of Native Americans by the then young nation. What Marshall didn’t know was that he set a precedent that 200 years later would enable the Poarch Band of Creek Indians to operate casinos. Alabama attorney general Luther Strange has sued the tribe to try and force them to cease gaming operations in the state. Strange has called the tribal casinos “public Nuisances.” Legal experts say that the tribe’s status as a sovereign nation within the United States will most likely prevent Strange’s lawsuit from being successful.

What started as an effort by government to segregate Indians from the European population and confine them on reservations has put tribes beyond the reach of state and local courts. Rose Stremlau, a professor of history at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, said “American Indian History is proof of the law of unintended consequences.” The 1823 decision was the first part of a set of rulings known as the Marshall Trilogy which defined the status of Native American tribes. The decisions are rife with racist and paternalistic language and the tribes are often called “savages.” The Marshall Trilogy gave the federal government sole authority over the tribes putting them out of the reach of state authorities.

Katheryn Rand, a professor at the University of North Dakota School of Law and an expert in Indian law, stated “After the Marshall trilogy, tribes were recognized as having sovereignty, the right to self-govern, but only to the extent that the sovereignty is recognized by the federal government. The decision also strictly prohibited the ability of states to intervene in tribal affairs.” Today After the Marshall trilogy, tribes were recognized as having sovereignty, the right to self-govern, but only to the extent that the sovereignty is recognized by the federal government. The decision also strictly prohibited the ability of states to intervene in tribal affairs is a mixture of rights and restrictions.

The limits of tribal sovereignty related to gambling generated a controversy when during the 70s’ and 80s’ tribes in California and Florida started operating bingo halls that served non-Indian patrons. The sheriff of a county in California tried to shut down a tribal gaming operation owned by two small bands of Mission Indians. The tribes said they were a sovereign nation and the case was heard by the US Supreme Court. In 1987 the court ruled that states do not have the right to enforce their gaming laws on tribal lands. In 1988 congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Federally recognized tribes have the right to offer bingo games if they are legal elsewhere in the state.

Legal scholars say that tribal sovereignty will make it difficult for Alabama to win the dispute with the tribe. Rand stated “People like me are paying attention to it because the state (of Alabama) has been so dogged in its effort to stop the tribe. I definitely would be very surprised if they are successful. That would have a huge impact on our understanding of tribal gaming law.” Hopefully Luther Strange will receive his well deserve comeuppance in a Federal court.