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Once-Banished Indians Seek Comeback with Iowa Casino

March 2, 1990

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) _ Banished to a remote prairie 130 years ago, the Santee-Sioux Indians are rising again, this time with playing cards in their hands.

The tribe plans to build a $67 million hotel-casino in Council Bluffs that would dwarf all other gaming operations between Nevada and New Jersey.

″I’m tired of government handouts and dependency,″ said Don LaPoint, the tribal council’s chairman. ″One of the things we do have going for us is gaming. I’m very optimistic this is going to succeed.″

The tribe has hired Harveys Resort and Casino, located at Lake Tahoe in Nevada, to run the casino, which with a convention center and 450-bed hotel would employ up to 1,000 people.

Gov. Terry Branstad opposes the casino, and much legal wrangling lies ahead. But local officials said the 1988 Indian Gaming Act, a federal law providing preferential treatment for Indians, could help the casino become a reality.

″The governor feels there is sentiment among Iowans that we’ve gone far enough in gambling,″ said Dick Vohs, a Branstad spokesman.

Chuck Shearer, vice president of finance for Harveys, said the casino would push ahead with its plans ″until we have exhausted all the legal opportunities available or until the city of Council Bluffs asks us to get out of town.″

The Santee-Sioux have an option to buy a 50-acre tract for the casino in Council Bluffs, across the Missouri River from Omaha, Neb. Proponents expect the casino also would lure customers from Des Moines, 120 miles to the east, and Kansas City, 200 miles to the south.

Few employees are likely to be Indians, but the tribe’s share of the income would go back to the reservation, some 200 miles to the northwest in Nebraska, where about 60 percent of the 2,300 tribe members live.

The Sioux-Santee were banished to the 12-by-17-mile reserve by President Lincoln after the bloody Minnesota Uprising of 1862.

″We’re isolated here,″ LaPoint said in a telephone interview from the reservation. ″Nobody comes here. There are no airports, no industries. We need to come back with pride, dignity.″

The Council Bluffs City Council and business community have not taken a formal position on the casino, but the general sentiment is favorable, said city attorney Richard B. Wade.

″People fear that if we don’t do everything to get it, next year it will either be in Des Moines or Chicago or Kansas City,″ Wade said.

That the casino is possible at all stems from the Iowa Legislature’s decision last year to allow low-stakes casinos aboard riverboats beginning in the summer 1991.

The riverboat casino law opened the door to other gambling. The Mesquakie Indians, who already hold high-stakes bingo games on their settlement near Tama, are nearing agreement with the state on adding video lottery games and slot machines.

Indian tribes nationwide, faced with cutbacks in federal money and a limited tax base, have instituted gambling to raise revenue. The 1988 act helps them set up operations off their reservations, in more easily visited areas.

The act states that such gaming is permitted if officials agree it is in the best interests of both the community and the Indians.

But Vohs said his reading of the law is that the governor has final say on the establishment of any high-stakes casino.

″Obviously, that’s not how we see it,″ said Shearer.

Joel Starr, a U.S. Interior Department gaming expert, said casino advocates would have little room to maneuver if the governor turned them down.

Seven Midwest bishops have issued a statement criticizing the casino, saying gambling can shred families and hurt communities.

But Wade said: ″We’ve already devised several ways you can lose your paycheck. A lot of people feel the moral issue has already been decided.″