Michigan Tribal Casino Legal Drama: A Road Sign and a Supreme Court Suit
Michigan is a state rich in Native American history. Twenty-three tribal casinos dot the Great Lakes state's landscape, beckoning citizens and visitors alike to come inside and play. The state's tribal gaming landscape has had its share of legal dramas, both small and large, in recent months. Here is a recap of some notable legal challenges in tribal gaming in the state:
Casino's MDOT Sign Forced Down
A letter of complaint from a concerned Michigan resident prompted MDOT, the state's transportation department, to authorize the take-down of a U.S. 131 highway sign leading customers to Gun Lake Casino in Wayland. The sign indicates that hungry people who take Exit 61 will find a Tim Hortons, Johnny Rockets, Sandhill Cafe, and Villa Italian Kitchen at their disposal, as well as the Gun Lake Casino. The catch: All four eateries are located inside Gun Lake Casino, making them virtually inaccessible to minors.
Businesses who advertise on MDOT signs make a promise, via a legal contract, not to discriminate against customers of any race, age, color, sex, religion, or national origin. Since the four Gun Lake restaurants do not have exterior entrances, however, minors are logistically prohibited from entering. This fact puts casino businesses who advertise on MDOT signs in breach of their contract, as citizens under the age of 21 are excluded from casino entry by Michigan law.
2012: Sandhill Cafe Lets Minors In
Sandhill Cafe has tried to find a way around this law. In 2012, the restaurant piloted a program in which guests could bring their children into the restaurant Sundays through Thursdays during daylight hours. Minors who passed through Gun Lake's doors in order to dine at the cafe were directed to travel a "Green Zone" pathway which led them directly to the restaurant. The pilot lasted through June. Currently, the Sandhill Cafe website states that casino admission is restricted to those 21 and up. It does not mention any other age restrictions.
About Gun Lake Casino
Located in Wayland, a small Michigan town of less than 5,000 people, Gun Lake Casino opened in early 2011. The $157 million facility offers 1,450 slot machines, nearly 30 table games, and the standard food court/bars/entertainment venues found in other Michigan gambling houses. It is a tribal casino managed by the Gun Lake Tribe, a faction of Potawatomi Native Americans in Michigan. The group actually considers themselves to be a conglomerate of Potawatomi, Chippewa, and Ottawa-blooded Native Americans.
Native American History in Michigan
The state name "Michigan" was taken from the vocabulary of the Algonquin tribe and means "big lake," a reference to Lake Michigan and its surrounding waters. American Indians lived in the territory of the Great Lakes for thousands of years before French settlers arrived and took over. Some of the state's original Native American groupings included the Potawatomi, Ojibwe, Miami, Menominee, Kickapoo, and Fox and Sauk tribes.
Today, Michigan is home to 11 federally recognized Native American tribes. According to state data, 23 tribal casinos punctuate the landscape of the Great Lakes state, offering a total of more than 23,000 slot machines to gamblers. The tribal casino with the most slot machines is the Four Winds Casino Resort in New Buffalo. This facility offers 3,000 slots and over 60 table games. The federally recognized tribal facility with the smallest number of slots is the Kewadin Casino in Hessel, a tiny upper peninsula town. Hessel's Kewadin offers only 150 slots. Four other Kewadin casinos exist in the UP towns of Christmas, Manistique, Sault Ste. Marie, and St. Ignace.
Gambling Expansion in Michigan
Efforts to change Michigan laws and expand gambling, particularly in the lower peninsula, have been in the works for several years now. Up to 22 new gambling houses would be built in the state if American Indian tribes and some private investors were to get their way. New casinos and changed laws in Michigan aren't a sure thing, however; a professor from Michigan State University, Matthew Fletcher, called the hopes to change Michigan's tribal gambling landscape a "fantasy land."
Bay Mills Casino and the Supreme Court Challenge
The Bay Mills tribe of Michigan governs three casinos: The 250-slot Kings Club in Brimley, the 700-slot Bay Mills Resort in the same town, and a tiny, 34-slot facility in Vanderbilt that has not been officially recognized by the federal government. The legally questionable nature of the Vanderbilt facility recently was brought to the attention of the U.S. Supreme Court, in fact. It seems that the Vanderbilt casino, though governed by the tribe, does not exist on tribal land. In fact it exists 100 miles from Brimley, clearly out of the designated Bay Mills reservation zone.
The tribe is being sued for illegally operating a casino on state land. Bay Mills officials feel the suit is an assault on tribal rights and that Native Americans should be allowed to operate gaming facilities wherever they wish. If Bay Mills wins the suit, doors will automatically open for tribes across the nation who want to run their businesses on non-reservation land. If Bay Mills loses the suit, as Fletcher has predicted they will, the loss could spell disaster for future community investments in tribal casinos of every kind.
Throughout Michigan, tribes and investors alike are waiting with bated breath for the Supreme Court's final decision on the matter, which is expected to be handed down in 2014. The outcome of the case would definitely impact the future of not just the Vanderbilt facility, but the 22 proposed casinos which would theoretically be built within Michigan's lower peninsula in the future.
The tribal casinos of Michigan continue to face challenges, both large and small. In the case of the MDOT sign, state law trumped Gun Lake's desire to advertise on a particular billboard. In the case of the Bay Mills off-reservation enterprise, interested parties will just have to wait and see.