Editorial: U.S. casino debate began in region

Even those who live there would probably describe Vanderbilt as a “quiet” or “sleepy” type of community.

Nestled near the Pigeon River Country of Michigan, the geography of the community is some of the prettiest in Michigan but outside of that, as far as communities go, Vanderbilt is rather “non-descript.”

Monday, however, it found itself front and center in a debate before the U.S. Supreme Court as representatives of the Bay Mills Tribe and state of Michigan argued over the right of the tribe to establish a casino there. While no one denies the rights of Native Americans to establish casinos on sovereign tribal properties, what makes Vanderbilt different is that the site on which the casino was constructed, before being shut down by state officials, was purchased by the tribe using proceeds from a land settlement.

At issue is whether “off-reservation” properties, if purchased by tribes, makes the property eligible for casino development.

Carrying that argument further, the case really involves what is the extent of the boundaries for tribal immunity. Native Americans already enjoy autonomy and immunity from U.S. laws on reservations, but the Vanderbilt case would seem to draw into question where that extends off-reservation.

The implications for Michigan are huge, but then so is the national precedent that will be set here as well.

The hearing comes at a time in Michigan where state and tribal relationships are courteous, yet chilly. Just days prior to the Supreme Court hearing Monday a 20-year compact with Michigan tribes authorizing casinos in the state expired, and it has not yet been renewed. While negotiations are ongoing, there are several “sticky” points that could require quite a bit of discussion and compromise in the weeks and months ahead.

Lurking in the background to those talks is the Vanderbilt case.

All of which makes for a lot of drama in a state rich with a strong Native American heritage and, for the most part, solid working relationships between tribes and state governments.