Keetoowah leaders 'sure' feds will allow casino to stay open
BY MICHAEL OVERALL World Staff Writer
Saturday, July 28, 2012
7/28/12 at 7:09 AM
TAHLEQUAH - Keetoowah officials are "98 or 99 percent sure" that the federal government will step in to save the tribe's casino before Monday's court-ordered deadline to close it.
"My words are: It's going to happen," declared Chief George Wickliffe. "We are in touch with the people in Washington."
The tribe has spent more than 20 years fighting court battles and navigating federal bureaucracy, trying to put the casino land in trust.
Earlier this month, a federal judge gave the casino until Monday to get approval for the trust or close.
With 72 hours left before the deadline, tribal officials held a press conference Friday afternoon to express confidence.
Assistant Chief Charles Locust said officials are "98 or 99 percent confident" that the casino will remain open.
"We're going to stay here, and we're going to keep fighting, because we have the truth on our side," he said.
The relatively small tribe depends on the casino - relatively small, itself - for much of its funding.
In addition to 124 employees at the casino, the gaming money supports another 72 employees in the tribal administration.
Last year alone, the casino also funded more than $640,000 in general assistance to Keetoowah citizens. It also provided more than $400,000 in college scholarships for Keetoowah students and more than $390,000 to support elderly tribal members.
If the casino does have to close Monday, General Manager Rod Fourkiller will assume that it's only temporary - until federal officials finish the process of approving the trust.
Employees will be put on administrative leave with a guarantee of having their jobs back when the casino reopens, he said.
In the meantime, the casino will make some renovations and improvements.
"We don't think we're going to have to close Monday," Fourkiller said. "But if we do, we're going to make the best of it."
The tribe has no plans to open another casino, whether or not this one closes, he said.
With 14,600 members, the United Keetoowah Band ranks as the fifth-largest tribe in Oklahoma, officials said.
It wasn't officially recognized by the federal government until the 1940s, and it's often described as a branch of the Cherokee Nation. The Cherokees have fought efforts to put the casino land in trust.
But the Keetoowahs trace themselves back to a group of Cherokees who came to Indian Territory in the 1820s, before the Trail of Tears, and who were already independent of the larger tribe.
Even though the Keetoowah Band is "landless," with no land in trust under the federal government, the tribe's charter and constitution give it the right to have land, officials said.
"We are not a small tribe or an offshoot of anybody else," Locust said. "We are fighting for our rights as a people."
Previous casino closings
June 2000: The Kiowa Grand Center Casino closed after officials accused it of using illegal gaming devices.
June 2003: The Seminole Nation closed four casinos after officials found illegal slot machines. Three of the casinos eventually reopened.
February 2006: Federal officials ordered a Tonkawa casino to close after warning the tribe that the casino manager lacked proper credentials.
Original Print Headline: UKB leaders 'sure' feds will halt casino closure
Michael Overall 918-581-8383
Casino general manager Rod Fourkiller (left) listens as Assistant Chief Charles Locust answers a question during a press conference at the United Keetoowah Band Casino in Tahlequah. MICHAEL WYKE/Tulsa World
Chief George Wickliffe: He says federal officials will intervene before Monday's deadline for closure of the tribe's casino
This is the front entrance of the United Keetoowah Band Casino in Tahlequah on Friday. MICHAEL WYKE/Tulsa World
Assistant Chief Charles Locust: He said that he is "98 or 99 percent confident" that federal officials will allow the United Keetoowah Band's casino to stay open, while also stating its importance to the tribe. "These aren't just numbers or statistics," Locust said. "These are real families who are going to be hurt by all this."