Federal judge rules against Eklutna tribal government’s bid to open a gaming hall

A federal district judge on Wednesday ruled against an effort by the Native Village of Eklutna to build a tribal gaming hall about 20 miles north of downtown Anchorage.

The tribal government has for years pursued a plan to build the gaming operation, arguing that it would support jobs, tourism and the economy.

But it has been unable to convince the federal government that it has jurisdiction over an Alaska Native allotment where it wants to build the casino. It would be located off the Glenn Highway, near the Birchwood Airport in Chugiak.

The U.S. Interior Department in 2018 concluded that the tribe does not have jurisdiction over the 8-acre allotment, even though it is owned by members of the tribe. The tribal government sued in 2019, challenging that decision.

Judge Dabney L. Friedrich with the District Court for the District of Columbia determined that the agency properly came to a “rational” decision, according to Friedrich’s 24-page ruling.

“Though the Tribe may not agree with Interior’s application of law to the facts at hand, the record shows that Interior made a reasoned judgment which the court will not second-guess,” Friedrich wrote in the decision.

Friedrich was appointed in 2017 and nominated by former President Donald Trump.

Aaron Leggett, president of the tribe, said Wednesday afternoon it was too early to provide a detailed comment on the newly issued decision.

“Of course it’s a disappointment,” he said. “But like I said, it’s pretty fresh. So we’re reviewing our options.”

The decision favors the state of Alaska, which had intervened in the case in support of Interior. The state has often opposed attempts by tribal governments to exercise jurisdiction, citing fears that such a situation could lead to a patchwork of conflicting laws.

The Eklutna tribal government, representing about 300 members, had argued that it exercises governmental authority over the allotment through land management and environmental protection. It has built a septic system there, cut trees for fire breaks, had junk cars removed and controlled dogs by ordinance, among other actions.

In 2016, the tribe asked the Bureau of Indian Affairs to permit the operation on the parcel, located about seven miles southwest of the village, according to Wednesday’s decision.

But in 2018, Interior Acting Assistant Secretary John Tahsuda, employing a five-part test, determined that tribal jurisdiction over the allotment did not exist, in part because there was never an Indian reservation near the allotment.

Alaska’s tribal governments are sovereign but have little or no land on which to exercise their laws. “Indian Country,” as it is formally known, is limited to Metlakatla in remote Southeast Alaska — the state’s only Indian reservation — and more than 16,000 small family allotments held in trust by the federal government.

According to the Eklutna tribe’s plans, the gaming facility would not host blackjack, slot machines and similar Vegas-style games permitted by “Class III” gaming under federal law, games which are not authorized under state law.

Instead, the tribal ordinance would limit activity to “Class II” gaming — pull-tabs, bingo and lotteries, the complaint says. That could include electronic versions of those games.

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or