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Tuesday, June 25, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Tribe Tells Uncle Sam to Get off the Dime

(CN) - The nation's second-largest Indian tribe, the Tohono O'odham Nation, says the Secretary of the Interior is more than a year late in accepting trust title to land near Phoenix on which the tribe wants to build a casino. The tribe's federal complaint in the District of Columbia is, effectively, a fight with Glendale, which is trying to incorporate the land before the tribe gets it. A casino there would be the only one in the West Phoenix Valley and would be immensely profitable - and not far from the new Arizona Cardinals' NFL stadium.

The O'odham paid $13.8 million for the 135-acre parcel bordering Glendale in Maricopa County.

The land is meant to replace portions of the tribe's Gila Bend Indian Reservation that were destroyed in the 1980s when the federal government dammed the Gila River and flooded O'odham farm lands to protect "non-Indian farmers," according to the tribe's complaint.

The O'odham say the 1986 Gila Bend Indian Reservation Lands Replacement Act places a "nondiscretionary duty" on the Interior Secretary to "accept trust title to certain land and hold it in trust for the Nation's benefit."

The tribe asked Secretary Ken Salazar to hold land near Glendale in trust more than year ago, but he has not done so -though the property "unquestionably satisfied all the requirements" of the Act, according to the complaint.

The O'odham claims that Glendale, recognizing that the Gila Bend Act requires trust land to be outside city limits, passed an ordinance to retroactively annex the parcel. That move is the subject of a current state lawsuit.

The tribe says that Glendale and others "have mounted a concerted campaign to thwart the Nation's Trust Application by any means possible," and that Salazar's foot-dragging is helping Glendale, though the Interior Secretary should represented the interests of the tribe.

"The secretary's lengthy delay in fulfilling his mandatory duty has allowed and encouraged these efforts to block the Nation from invoking its federal rights and to frustrate the central purpose of the Lands Replacement Act," the lawsuit claims.

The tribe says that that Arizona Legislature is backing Glendale, with a bill "specifically aimed at frustrating the Nation's pending trust application."

"Since August 2009, the Nation and its representatives have made repeated and increasingly urgent inquiries about the status of its application," according to the complaint. "Yet, despite the Nation's repeated requests and its undeniable need for prompt action, the Secretary has refused to act on the Nation's Trust Application, to provide any reasonable explanation for his delay, or even to specify a date by which he will act."

Most of the 28,000-member Tohono O'odham Nation, formerly called the Papago, live on a 3-million-acre Sonoran Desert reservation southwest of Tucson, along the U.S.-Mexico border. Despite two tribal casinos in Southern Arizona, the average income for the Nation's members on the reservation is less than $8,200 a year - less than one-third of the average income for Americans, the tribe says.

The O'odham sued Salazar for breach of trust and unreasonable delay. They seek a write of mandamus to force him to accept trust title immediately to a portion of the land that is not burdened by the state lawsuit.

The tribe is represented by Seth Waxman with Wilmer Cutler in Washington, D.C.

O'odham (aw aw tahm) means "the people" in the tribe's Uto-Aztecan language. The O'odham are the only tribe in the mainland United States that remains on its aboriginal land and has never been at war with the U.S. government.

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