June 30, 1997

Eklutna Village Park

New Jersey visitors view the cemetery and "new" St. Nicholas Church while touring Eklutna Village Park with guide Paul Chukwak two years ago. (Anchorage Daily News file photo by Erik Hill)

Eklutna places its bet on casino

But odds are still against effort by 'forgotten people' to start Anchorage gaming operation

By Sheila Toomey
Daily News reporter

An Athabaskan village 25 miles out the Glenn Highway from downtown Anchorage is the biggest private landowner in the municipality, and if village leaders have their way, a casino will one day sit on some of that land.

Many non-Natives in Anchorage are only dimly aware that the city has a federally recognized tribe within its boundaries, a tribe that owns swaths of land from Spenard to Wasilla, including a strip mall on 36th Avenue, and two downtown blocks on Sixth Avenue.

The new FBI building at the corner of Sixth Avenue and A Street is built on land leased from Eklutna Inc.

Imagine a casino on the empty lot next door.

It isn't legally possible in Alaska now, not even in Indian country, but Lee Stephan is looking to the future.

Stephan is the CEO of the Native Village of Eklutna Inc., the traditional tribal council for the community of about 175 people. The No. 1 goal in the tribe's economic development plan is: ''To have a gaming operation on Eklutna land that will provide employment opportunities for all tribal members and dividend income for elders.''

The money from gambling would build decent housing, a village clinic, a teen center, and a new community hall, Stephan said. He pointed at the clumps of small homes, including some tacky HUD boxes tucked in among the trees between a bluff overlooking the Glenn Highway and the railroad tracks. ''You look at Eklutna today,'' he said, ''you're looking at Eklutna 1960.

''We're the forgotten people.''

Dan Alex also can imagine a casino next to the FBI building, or somewhere else on Eklutna land. Alex is a board member and former CEO of Eklutna Inc., the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act village corporation that actually owns the land, now totaling about 70,000 acres.

These two organizations, controlled by rival village families, have feuded for years. ''You kind of got a Hatfield-McCoy situation here,'' Alex said. But both groups agree a casino would be a good thing for the village, he said.

That's as far as it goes, however. Each man says his board is the only one legally qualified to get a federal permit to run gaming, if such a permit can be gotten by anyone.

''If'' is the operative word in any talk about an Eklutna casino, even if Indian country is found to exist in Alaska.

Under federal law, there can be no casino gambling in Indian country if casino gambling is outlawed in the rest of the state, as it is here.

Also, court tests to determine what Native-owned land qualifies as Indian country seem to exclude urban land separated from a village center.

Still, the prospect of a casino is real enough to have attracted Outside gambling money.

In 1994 and 1995 a major casino owner paid Stephan's tribal council a total of $175,000 to sign an ''agreement of understanding'' for exclusive rights to build and manage a gaming operation on tribal land, even though the land is not controlled by the tribe, but by the corporation.

The contract with Jack Binion, owner of Horseshoe Operating Co., which operates in Nevada, Mississippi and Tennessee, called for a $10 million building, a seven-year management agreement, and a 65-35 profit split in favor of the tribe.

In return, Binion ''donated'' $100,000 to the tribal council, plus $75,000 to pay a lawyer to write the agreement.

Stephan said he came up with the idea for an agreement after promoters -- he called them ''scouts'' -- started showing up in town in the mid-1980s, wanting to talk about Indian country opportunities -- gaming, low-tax cigarettes and the like.

According to Stephan they all had big eyes and empty hands. ''I started getting all kinds of fly-by-nights. I said, 'Wait a minute. What do we want?'''

So he compiled ''a laundry list of things, and No. 1 was, I will not speak with you unless you give $100,000 donation for this tribe.''

Binion was willing to pay, Stephan said.

This spring Binion canceled the 3-year-old contract, under a clause that allowed cancellation if either party concluded the venture was ''not likely to prevail in administrative and/or judicial legal proceedings or if any of the material terms of this Agreement in Principle are substantially modified by any regulatory body.''

Eklutna can keep the money, according to the terms of the deal.

No one from Horseshoe Operating returned calls to explain why it pulled out, but the contract was signed when Alaska state law allowed limited casino gaming by licensed charities, so-called ''Monte Carlo Nights.''

Fearful that this might open the door to full-time casinos on certain Native land here, the Legislature changed the law in 1995.

Stephan seems undaunted by Binion's decision to bow out. Plenty of operators will be interested when the time comes, he says.

Stephan believes the courts will give Eklutna and other tribes sovereign control of their land -- eventually, but he is bitter that they have to plead for sovereignty before judges who invent tests.

''I don't see anybody making the French, the Canadians, Italians, colored people, any other people prove themselves,'' he said. ''I should not have to prove myself. It's offensive to me.''

 

Stephan and Alex both know that many people in Anchorage are hostile to the idea of casino gambling here, or anywhere in Alaska, especially the Legislature. But both seem sure it will come some day, though maybe not soon.

Alex claims there's a way for the village to legally bypass the state and get federal approval for gaming in Indian country.

Stephan is more pragmatic. Gambling will be allowed, he said, ''when the state gets its cut.''

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