Legal papers claim Tohono have no right to convert property into reservation - East Valley Tribune: Arizona

Legal papers claim Tohono have no right to convert property into reservation

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Posted: Monday, May 17, 2010 10:58 am

The Gila River Indian Community is urging a judge to reject efforts to force a federal agency to approve letting the Tohono O'odham Nation convert property it owns near Glendale into part of its reservation.

Legal papers filed by attorneys for the Gila tribe contend the Tohono have no legal right to demand the U.S. Department of Interior approve making 135 acres of land near the Arizona Cardinals stadium into reservation. Tribal lawyers say there are a whole bunch of unanswered legal and procedural questions - questions that have to be answered before reservation status can be granted.

In seeking to intervene, the Gila community joins the city of Glendale which already has filed its own opposition to what the Tohono O'odham are seeking: An order from U.S. District Court Judge John Bates directing the Interior Department to approve reservation status - now.

But there won't be any action right now either way. Bates has scheduled a hearing for next month to consider some of the issues.

A 1986 law gave the Tohono nation the right to purchase land in Maricopa, Pinal and Pima counties after a federal dam project on the Gila River flooded the San Lucy District. One of the parcels purchased by the tribe - under an assumed name - is on the edge of Glendale.

It was only last year the true ownership became known when the Tohono sought designation as part of the reservation. That move is legally necessary for the tribe to build a casino on the property, part of a $550 million complex that also will include a resort and shopping center.

When the Interior Department didn't act after more than a year, the Tohono sued, asking Bates to force the federal agency to act.

An attorney for the tribe argued that Interior Secretary Kenneth Salazar has no choice but to approve making the property part of the reservation. He said that while the Interior Department is entitled to take time to review the request, 14 months "is unreasonable under the circumstances."

Attorneys for the Interior Department responded by asking asked Bates to throw out the case, saying the Tohono have no right to demand that Salazar rule a certain way. The filings by Glendale, which does not want the casino on its border, and now the Gila River community give the judge more issues to consider.

The Tohono escaped having the lands taken off the table for reservation inclusion when Senate President Bob Burns, R-Peoria, killed a House-passed bill that would have allowed Glendale to annex the property without tribal permission. That would have killed the casino plans because that 1986 law permits only unincorporated areas to be included in the reservation.

Burns is retiring and will not be back next session.

This fight goes beyond questions of law.

The Gila River community currently has the closest casino to Glendale and nearby communities including Sun City. In fact, the tribe runs bus service from those areas to its casinos.

A casino closer to the area could cut into Gila gaming profits.

In a statement Friday, Gila River publicist Alia Maisonet called the Tohono plans for a casino "aggressive and duplicitous." She said the property in question is part of her tribe's "aboriginal lands" to which the Tohono have no link or rightful claim.

But Tohono Chairman Ned Norris Jr. has said his tribe has as much right to build a casino in Glendale as the Gila River community - if it had acquired reservation land there. Norris said the Tohono are descendants of the Hohokam, as are members of the Gila River, Salt River and Ak-Chin reservations, and all have equal ancestral claim to the area.

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