After more than an hour of debate, often heated, the Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday unanimously passed a resolution to start a dialog toward formalizing a governmental relationship with the Native Village of Eklutna.
The resolution was opposed by the Alaska Charitable Gaming Alliance, which took out ads connecting it with Eklutna’s proposed gambling hall
Eklutna is the only tribal government within the municipality. In August, Eklutna sued the U.S. Department of the Interior in an effort to open a gaming hall with automated bingo and pull tabs.
The gaming alliance said the Assembly’s resolution is intended help open the gaming hall, which would compete with established gaming sites.
Assemblyman Chris Constant, the author of the resolution, said it has nothing to do with gaming. He and city attorney Becky Windt Pearson said the resolution would open a year period during which the Assembly and the village would discuss how to codify the relationship between the two entities. Assemblymen Kameron Perez-Verdia and Forrest Dunbar were also sponsors.
On Monday, the Alaska Charitable Gaming Alliance changed its website’s homepage to an ad attacking the resolution. Later, similar ads ran in the Anchorage Daily News.
During Tuesday’s meeting, several Assembly members said they received emails from constituents who believed the resolution and the gambling hall were connected.
The ads, paid for by Tudor Bingo Center owner John Powers, state the resolution will “force” Anchorage to recognize the Native Village of Eklutna as a sovereign government and would allow the village to open a casino.
“That’s the lie,” Constant said prior to the meeting. "That is the fabrication.”
Constant and Windt Pearson said the city and Assembly do not have the authority to deem a tribe a sovereign government or allow a tribe to open a casino. That power lies in the hands of the federal government, they said.
During Tuesday’s Assembly meeting, Assemblyman John Weddleton proposed an amendment to postpone the vote for six weeks. It would give the public time to identify the information as misleading, he said.
Constant said the gaming industry will continue spending money on ads opposing the resolution.
“If we are to postpone, this item dies," he said.
The amendment failed.
Powers declined to be interviewed before the meeting. He said he believes the intent of the resolution is to open the door for an Eklutna casino. He wanted the Assembly to delay the vote and take public testimony on the matter next year.
“I’ve had so many negative calls about the resolution itself, and possible rationales behind it, it makes sense and is responsible to delay,” he said by email.
Powers said he personally funded two days of ads in the Anchorage Daily News to encourage the public to show up to the meeting. He said he didn’t advertise anywhere else, and did not say how much he spent on the ads.
The advertisements reference several nonprofits that benefit from gaming operations like the Tudor Bingo Center, including the Food Bank of Alaska. Food Bank spokeswoman Jenny Di Grappa said Tuesday that the organization was not contacted prior to the ad running, and the Food Bank does not have a position on the matter.
Aaron Leggett, president of Eklutna’s tribal council, declined to comment on the opposition other than to say people are being misled. The resolution and the lawsuit against the federal government are not connected, he said.
“It’s unfortunate timing,” he said. "I wish we would have done it six months before.”
On Tuesday, the Department of the Interior submitted a response in the case, rejecting many of Eklutna’s assertions. The response also conceded that the tribe was federally recognized.
The Birchwood Community Council voted Dec. 11 to ask the Alaska Attorney General’s office to oppose the Native Village of Eklutna in its lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Constant said regardless of how the federal court rules on the gaming issue, Anchorage does and will continue to engage with the village. Formalizing how the two entities interact is necessary, he said.
“The bottom line of this whole thing is it doesn’t do anything that they are talking about,” Constant said of the ads. “This is a classic case of misdirection, an attempt to create mass hysteria.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, Assemblywoman Crystal Kennedy spoke in opposition to the resolution and offered an amendment to remove language that says Eklutna is federally recognized as a sovereign tribe and endured institutionalized abuse and marginalization.
“I am extremely offended by it," Assemblywoman Austin Quinn-Davidson said of the amendment. "They are a federally recognized tribe, and I will not vote for it.”
Kennedy withdrew the motion.
Kennedy said emails from the public made her doubt the legal soundness of the resolution. Windt Pearson told Assembly members the attorneys who drafted the resolution heavily vetted it.
In the end, Kennedy was swayed.
“I am not going to vote against my community," she said. "I just simply am not going to do it.”