An analysis: U.S. Interior Department rebuffs BIA meddling in OK Cheyenne & Arapaho governance

OKLAHOMA CITY – A seemingly obscure administrative ruling could mean good times will return for the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, benefitting the state and regional economy.

A decision from the U.S. Interior Board of Indian Appeals gives hope to key Cheyenne and Arapaho leaders — including former Lt. Gov. Amber Bighorse — that prosperity is at hand.

The board’s administrative law panel assailed regional Bureau of Indian Affairs officials for “arbitrary and capricious” acts and “an impermissible intrusion into tribal affairs.”
Administrative Judges Steven K. Linscheid and Thomas A. Blaser’s ruling rebuffed attempts to assert hegemony led by Darrell Flyingman, a former governor of the Two Tribes.

Bighorse anticipates the ruling allows restoration of programs devastated during the federal BIA interference. That would be good news in western Oklahoma – and from something other than the booming oil business.

Bighorse told CapitolBeatOK she welcomed the end of legal strife. The Board’s edict was a rare top-down reversal of federal administrative actions impacting tribal sovereignty.

At one time, these two historically poor tribes (with one government) had a $100 million market share of Oklahoma’s lucrative Indian gaming industry, enough to finance hundreds of jobs for members at several casinos. They paid a portion to federal, state and local governments under negotiated compacts.

Years of Bureau of Indian Affairs meddling in tribal government eroded market share and killed off jobs.

In varied proceedings after 2010, a regional BIA director and a superintendent ruled against Gov. Janice Prairie-Chief Boswell, leader of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes from 2010 to 2014, and her appointees.

In litigation, Boswell administration officials were unable to manage assets nominally under their supervision, as Oklahoma Watchdog has reported.
Bighorse supported Boswell throughout a years-long legal proceeding.

As things dragged on and regional BIA staffers jumped in, tribal members endured competing tribal legislatures, two conflicting tribal Supreme Courts, and disagreements over governance of tribal assets.

Bighorse told Oklahoma Watchdog the BIA edicts and loss of tribal control over funds “absolutely had an economic impact,” including hundreds of jobs at the tribes’ gaming venues.

Despite everything, Gov. Boswell just a year ago negotiated an accord with Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin that could have generated massive income from web gamers outside of the continental U.S., while banning domestic access to the tribe’s website. Some new accord might yet get on track.

A Cheyenne & Arapaho entertainment facility in Clinton is currently rarely used. Even a year ago it regularly hosted major performers, drawing concert-goers and income from across Oklahoma and Texas. Tribal instability impeded other ventures, such as a proposed wind farm on Indian lands.

Bighorse lamented the “domino effect” from the hesitancy of regional banks and businesses to negotiate with the Two Tribes during the turmoil: 

“There is … a chance that this ruling will repair some of the damages to confidence, including for tribal members.”

She cautioned against too much optimism when it comes to broader BIA meddling:

 “They have such a long history of creating problems for tribes rather than helping them, that I’m not sure even this case can change things.”

Nothing will undo the economic damage of the four years of tribal tumult.

Still open for debate is the status of current tribal leadership, after an election marred by low turnout and denial of voting rights for some tribal members.
Eddie Hamilton was named governor last December in an election decided by a single vote out of 1,500 cast.

The Board ruling did not address Hamilton’s election. Flyingman’s allies conducted separate balloting last fall, in which he was the only candidate. His election has not been recognized by the feds.

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