Wyandotte/Wyandot peace pact signed

No gambling to be allowed at KCK's Huron Cemetery
By John Carras
Article from the Kansas City Kansan
 July 15, 1998

There is peace at last between the Wyandotte Tribe of Oklahoma and the Wyandot Nation of Kansas over the future of the Huron Cemetery in downtown Kansas City, Kan.

There will never be a gambling facility at the cemetery, a sacred Indian burial ground, under terms of a newly signed agreement between the Wyandotte Tribe of Oklahoma and the Wyandot Nation of Kansas.

The agreement, expected to get formal approval by the U.S. Department of Interior soon, was signed on Saturday by Chief Leaford Bearskin of the Wyandotte Tribe and Chief Janith English of the Wyandot Nation.

The agreement absolutely prohibits the use of the Huron Cemetery for anything other than religious, cultural or other activities compatible with the use of the site as a burial ground.

Also, the pact says the Wyandotte Tribe will not oppose the Wyandot Nation's current application to be declared a federally recognized Indian tribe. Currently, the Wyandotte Tribe is a federally recognized tribe whereas the Wyandot Nation is not.  However, the Wyandot Nation has recognition from the state of Kansas.

The agreement is a historic reconciliation between two entities that have feuded since the 1880s over what's best for the Huron Cemetery and who has the right to do what there.  The Wyandotte Tribe has asserted control over the cemetery based on an 1855 treaty with the federal government.  That was the year the original sole tribe split, thus forming the Wyandotte Tribe of Oklahoma and the Wyandot Nation of Kansas.  Ancestors of both the Wyandotte Tribe and the Wyandot Nation are buried in the cemetery located near 7th and
Minnesota Avenue.

Over the years the Wyandotte Tribe has considered the cemetery its sovereign land under federal trust, something the federal government concurs with. However, the Wyandot Nation continues to assert it has some legal right to the site also.

English said she's glad the agreement was ironed out.  "We are thankful that productive interaction between the Wyandot Nation and the Wyandotte Tribe of Oklahoma has led to an agreement that, pending approval by the Department of Interior, is designed to immediately and permanently protect the sanctity of the Huron Cemetery as a burying ground, and prohibits any economic development on, over or under its ground," she said.

English said that if the Wyandot Nation becomes a federally recognized tribe it will not seek to have a gambling facility in Kansas.  The Wyandot Nation gave that assurance a few years ago in a written promise distributed to Kansas based Indian tribes.

Bearskin said the agreement is good for both his tribe and the Wyandot Nation. "We worked on the agreement full force in the past two or three months.  We needed to come together to put all this behind us," he said.

Actually, even if the agreement is not OK'd by the Department of Interior, it still binds the parties to follow through as it relates to the Huron Cemetery, said Holly Zane, attorney for the Wyandot Nation.  However, if the federal government approves it, it makes the agreement more enforceable, she said.

For the past few years the Wyandotte Tribe considered possibly building a gaming casino of some kind over the cemetery or at the former Scottish Rite Temple (owned by the tribe) immediately adjacent under the auspices of the federal Indian Gaming Act.  The tribe maintained it had the right to do that, although the Congress passed into law last year a stipulation that the cemetery cannot be used for anything other than a burial ground.   However, the Wyandotte Tribe claimed the law is unconstitutional.  That law was sponsored by U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas.

But just about everyone --- the Wyandot Nation, the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/KCK (UG), the state government and various Indian groups --- opposed having a gambling den at the cemetery.  Critics called the idea a sacrilege.  The Wyandotte Tribe called the plan an alternative if it could not arrange to have a gambling casino at The Woodlands race track, an enterprise about to be auctioned off in bankruptcy court.  The previous ownership wanted to have the Wyandotte Tribe sponsor casino gaming at The Woodlands under the
federal Indian Gaming Act.  However, the bankruptcy court rejected that plan. Instead, the court ordered The Woodlands be auctioned off shortly.

It is expected that William Grace, owner of a St. Joseph, Mo., casino will acquire The Woodlands through the auction.  If he does buy it, Grace may seek to have Indian gaming at the Woodlands under the Indian Gaming Act.  However, the Wyandotte Tribe and Grace have not negotiated to do any such thing up to this point.

The agreement between the Wyandotte Tribe and Wyandot Nation does not affect The Woodlands situation at all, Bearskin said.  "We are still interested in sponsoring casino gaming at The Woodlands if that can be worked out," he said. Even if Grace and the Wyandotte Tribe worked out such a contract for gambling, it would require approval by the governor, and Legislature, as well as the federal government to go into effect.  Gov. Bill Graves and state legislators have opposed the Wyandotte Tribe having a casino in Kansas because they say it is not a Kansas-based tribe.

However, there is a bill pending in Congress that would allow the Wyandotte Tribe to acquire other land in Wyandotte County and have it placed under federal trust for the benefit of the tribe.  Such land would be eligible for gaming purposes, under the bill.  If that bill became law, it would bypass any needed approval by the governor or Legislature for gaming on land put into trust by the Wyandotte Tribe.

The agreement between the Wyandotte Tribe and the Wyandot Nation provides that the Wyandot Nation drop out as a plaintiff in a lawsuit pending in Topeka federal court.  That lawsuit filed in 1996 by Kansas-based Indian tribes challenges the federal government's designation of Huron Cemetery as reservation land for the Wyandotte Tribe.  The suit asks the court to prohibit use of the cemetery for gambling games.  However, if the Department of Interior does not approve the agreement, the Wyandot will not withdraw from the lawsuit, Zane said.

The agreement between the Wyandot Nation and Wyandotte Tribe also provides for creation of a five-member Huron Cemetery Commission to ensure the conservation and maintenance of the cemetery and to preserve the site's religious and cultural significance.  The commission members shall consist of two each from the Wyandot Nation and Wyandotte Tribe and one member appointed by a majority vote of the other four members.

Also, if the Wyandotte Tribe ever establishes a gambling facility in Kansas, the tribe is required to pay $250,000 to start a fund for Huron Cemetery upkeep and to maintain a cultural center in the Temple which is owned by the Wyandotte Tribe.  In subsequent years the tribe would then make annual contributions not to exceed that amount, but it could be a lesser amount.

In the meantime, the status of the former Scottish Rite Temple adjacent to the Huron Cemetery remains in doubt as far as casino gaming goes.  The building is owned by the Wyandotte Tribe.  The Temple is the subject of a temporary restraining order issued by the U.S. District Court in Topeka to prohibit perfection of its trust status.  Trust status is a prerequisite for Indian gaming on the site.

The intent of the agreement between the Wyandotte Tribe and Wyandot Nation is that the Temple would be used only for cultural and educational purposes.  The only way the Wyandotte Tribe could have gambling at the Temple could be if it could not open a Class III (Las Vegas style casino) somewhere else in or out of Kansas.

The Wyandot Nation would not be happy with a gambling casino at the Temple next to the cemetery.  However, as Zane put it, "Our top priority with the agreement was to prevent gambling on the cemetery site.  We don't think the Temple is the right place either.  But we have shut off any possibility of gambling at the cemetery itself."

The KCK Area Chamber of Commerce facilitated negotiations for the agreement by furnishing meeting space and offering encouragement.  "I think it's a heart-warming development that two groups of people who have had difficulties for about 140 years came together and forged a truce," said Dan Schenkein, Chamber