Judge Again Rules in Favor of Ponca Tribe, Which Is Ready to Put Lawsuits to Bed and Focus on Economic Growth

Last year, the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska opened a casino on restored Tribal lands in Iowa, while a civil case against the gaming establishment was pending. Ever since, the Tribe has faced a barrage of attempts from state and local governments to shut down its Prairie Flower Casino in Carter Lake, Iowa. U.S. District Court Judge Stephanie Ross wrote in an order Monday that she would not overturn two prior decisions by the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC), stating that the Tribe can continue to operate Prairie Flower Casino. Judge Ross denied the motions by the states of Iowa and Nebraska, and the City of Council Bluffs, Iowa, confirming the NIGC’s previous determination: “Since the parcel is within the aboriginal territory of the Tribe and the Tribe possess modern connections to it,” the NIGC previously wrote, “… the parcel is restored lands.” According to federal legislation, Tribes can build casinos on “restored lands.”

A lawsuit by the three governments contended that Prairie Flower Casino doesn’t sit on “restored land” — an argument the NIGC has denied twice, most recently in April, after the U.S. District Court asked the NIGC to review the suit once more. 

“The Summary Judgment Order is final,” Ross wrote in her decision Monday.

In response, Ponca Tribe Chairman Larry Wright Jr. asked Nebraska, Iowa and Council Bluffs to put the opposition to rest.

“It’s time to put the lawsuits behind us and focus on our shared interests of bringing more economic growth,” Wright said.

Still, representatives of the attorneys general offices in Iowa and Nebraska may take the case to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Poncas purchased the land in Carter Lake, Iowa, a suburb just north of Omaha, Nebraska, in 1999. After a decade-long legal battle with the Iowa, Nebraska and Council Bluffs (home to three state-regulated casinos: Ameristar, Harrah’s and Horseshoe Casino), the Tribe opened Prairie Flower Casino in November 2018. 

The Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, which counts nearly 4,300 Tribal citizens, intends to use casino proceeds to pay for Tribal programs and services, including a 60,000-square-foot health care clinic, job training, continuing education, land preservation and cultural arts. Meanwhile, the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska and the Prairie Flower Casino are committed to demonstrating support for the community by contributing $775,000 per year to Carter Lake to support police, fire and emergency responders, and for general community improvement.

Prairie Flower Casino is named for the daughter of Standing Bear, a 19th century Ponca chief. Prairie Flower Casino honors the young woman who passed away during the Tribe’s 1877 Trail of Tears.

Her father gained notoriety two years later, arguing before the U.S. District Court proceeding in Omaha that Native Americans must be identified as “persons within the meaning of the law.” Before that, they were not.

“Our people lost not only land and holdings, but our culture and language, because of forced assimilation,” said Ponca Tribal Chairman Larry Wright, Jr. “This will go a long way towards helping and bridging those gaps,” he said of Prairie Flower Casino.

“Casinos aren’t a panacea, but they’ll help us to diversify and be self-sustaining,” Wright added, in an interview with omaha.com.

The historical lands of the Ponca people were in northern Nebraska. The federal government withdrew its recognition of the Tribe in 1962, and restored federal recognition in 1990.

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