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Friday, April 12, 2024 | Back issues
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Slot Machines Aren’t on Tribal Land, Court Rules

(CN) - The Stockbridge-Munsee Indians can't operate slot machines in Red Springs, Wis., the 7th Circuit ruled, because the tribe no longer owns the land after Congress shrank its reservation through legislation passed in 1871 and 1906.

The tribe, descended from Mohicans, was displaced by white settlers in western Massachusetts. Its members moved to a reservation east of Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin, but soon felt pressured to move by opposing factions within the tribe.

In 1856, the tribe agreed to "cede and relinquish" its Lake Winnebago reservation in exchange for a new reservation in Wisconsin. The new land turned out to be heavily forested and difficult to farm, and the Department of the Interior blocked the tribe from cutting and selling the timber.

Congress intervened in 1871 by putting up three quarters of the new reservation for public auction. The tribe received some of the profits, but most of the money wound up in the pockets of timber companies.

The 1871 Act had another catch. Tribal members who had previously separated from the tribe or received allotments were expelled from the tribe and received nothing. The ousted faction contested the act, and Congress again stepped in to restore their membership and give them land on the new reservation, which was now too small to accommodate them. In 1906, Congress solved the problem by giving them the land that didn't sell at auction - a solution that required the tribe, not the government, to foot the bill.

When the tribe bought the Pine Hills club in 1993 and set up slot machines there, Wisconsin sued to enjoin the gambling, claiming it wasn't on tribal land. The tribe countersued for recognition of its 1856 reservation boundaries. Pine Hills is part of the original reservation, but not the current, diced-and-patched reservation.

The lower courts ruled for the state, saying Congress intended to diminish the reservation through its 1871 and 1906 legislation.

The 7th Circuit acknowledged that "once a reservation is established, it remains intact until Congress explicitly diminishes its boundaries or disestablishes it entirely."

Though neither act stated this intent directly, the federal appeals court in Chicago concluded that both acts were meant to shrink the reservation.

"The 1871 Act includes no hallmark diminishment language," Judge Evans wrote, "but the act does include other language which shows that Congress wanted to slice the opened lands off from the reservation."

Similarly, the 1906 act was intended to "extinguish what remained of the reservation," the court ruled.

"By 1910, all the land in the 1856 reservation was sold to non-Indians or allotted in fee simple, which meant that Congress paved the way for non-Indians to own every parcel within the original reservation and ensured that the reservation could be immediately extinguished," Evans wrote.

"The present, reestablished reservation is but a part of the original two-township reservation created in 1856. And the Pine Hills entity is not within the boundary of the reservation as it exists today. On this point Congress' intent is clear."

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