With speeches and a ceremonial snip of a ribbon, the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska opened the new Prairie Flower Casino in Carter Lake — bringing gaming even closer to Omaha’s doorstep and providing the tribe with an important new source of income.
The opening marked a milestone for the tribe, which was terminated by the federal government in 1962 and not restored to tribal status until Oct. 31, 1990 — a difficult period in the Poncas’ history.
“I’m excited, overwhelmed. This a great day for our people,” said Larry Wright Jr., the tribal chairman. “We have been able to grow, with eyes to the future. This is a symbol of our resilience.”
The new casino, at Ninth Street and Avenue H, has 200 slot-style gaming machines, with names like Electric Diamond, Coyote Queen and Miss Kitty Gold, and colorful, flashing screens. The casino also has a full-service bar and a snack bar, but no gaming tables for poker or roulette. It will be open 24 hours a day every day, and employ 100 people, including 20 members of the Ponca Tribe.
That’s much smaller than three Iowa-sanctioned casinos across the Missouri River in Council Bluffs. The smallest, Harrah’s Council Bluffs, has 543 machines and 22 tables and grossed $73.7 million last year. Ameristar has nearly 1,600 machines and 26 tables, and took in $172 million in 2017. Horseshoe Casino has more than 1,400 machines and 64 tables, and took in $174 million.
The National Indian Gaming Commission approved construction of the casino last November. The tribe broke ground in June, and the casino opened Thursday in place of a Ponca cigarette shop that had been operating on the site.
“In less than a year, we’ve been able to do this,” Wright said. “We’re late to the process, but we hope to be one of the best in Indian country.”
About 150 people attended Thursday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony, including many Ponca members as well as leaders from other Midlands tribes. Wright gave gifts of native blankets to several guests, including Charlie Vig, leader of Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Tribe from Minnesota, which has underwritten the Prairie Flower project.
The Shakopees were hunted nearly to extinction during an 1860s war with the federal government. In recent years, they have grown wealthy with profits from a casino and related businesses in the Twin Cities. The New York Times reported in 2012 that each member of the Tribe received a check for $84,000 — every month.
Wright said the Shakopees gave the Poncas a $1 million grant to buy the Carter Lake property in 1999, and have loaned them $10 million for other projects, including construction of the Prairie Flower.
Wright also recognized Carter Lake Mayor Ron Cumberledge. After early concerns over the burden the casino might put on services in the town of about 3,800 residents, Carter Lake has enthusiastically supported the project. The tribe has tax-exempt status, but it has agreed to donate $775,000 a year to the city for police, emergency and other services.
The tribe has not said how much revenue it expects the casino to generate.
“This project brings new life to a piece of ground that hasn’t seen anything in decades,” Cumberledge said.
The 9,500-square-foot casino is the first phase of the Prairie Flower project. Leaders have talked of expanding the casino to include as many as 2,000 gambling machines and 50 tables.
But those plans will have to wait. The City of Council Bluffs and the States of Iowa and Nebraska have tried for 10 years to stop the Poncas from building the casino, filing a federal lawsuit in an attempt to stop it. They have argued that federal law doesn’t permit construction of the casino on the Carter Lake property. They also say the tribe reneged on an agreement with the State of Iowa not to build a casino.
Iowa and Council Bluffs fear the loss of tax and charity dollars if the Prairie Flower cuts into the business of state-regulated casinos on their side of the river.
Nebraska, which has rebuffed attempts to build casinos within its borders, objects to a casino opening in a town that is just 3 miles north of downtown Omaha.
The Prairie Flower Casino is named for the daughter of Standing Bear, a 19th century Ponca chief. Prairie Flower died of tuberculosis during the tribe’s 1877 Trail of Tears, when the federal government forced some 700 tribal members to leave their homelands near Niobrara, Nebraska, and move to a reservation in what is now the state of Oklahoma.
She was one of nine members of the tribe who died along the way.
The tribe now claims a membership of more than 4,200 people, about half of whom live in Nebraska or Iowa. It provides services in Omaha, Lincoln, Norfolk, Sioux City and Niobrara, the tribe’s headquarters.
Profits from the casino will provide money to fund those programs. Wright said the tribe recently purchased land in Ralston for new offices and a 60,000-square-foot health care clinic, much larger than its current facility in South Omaha. The money will also fund elder-care and youth programs, and preservation of the Ponca language.
“It means self-sufficiency, the sovereignty that we had for millennia,” Wright said. “Gaming will be part of who we are, but it will not define who we are. ... Lifting our own, and our community, absolutely defines who we are.”