ONEIDA NATION HOMELAND, N.Y. - Ripples of shock from the U.S. Supreme Court
decision in City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York are
tearing at the intricate fabric of state-Indian and internal Haudenosaunee
Or perhaps the more appropriate metaphor is that it is poisoning already
Schisms are emerging in Iroquois nations on the verge of accepting state
taxation on sovereign lands. Denunciations and charges of shady dealing,
already on the public record before the court's March 29 ruling, are
becoming more virulent.
On the other hand, supporters of the land rights settlement between New
York state and five tribes maintain it will survive the Sherrill decision.
The 8 - 1 ruling by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg held that lands within the
boundary of the former Oneida reservation did not unilaterally revert to
sovereign tribal status when the Oneida Nation repurchased them, although
the nation and lower federal courts had maintained they did.
It left open to state and local taxation the extensive business holdings of
the Oneidas and other central New York tribes, including the valuable
Turning Stone Resort & Casino, in the final stages of a $343 million
expansion. (Oneida enterprises also include Four Directions Media,
publisher of Indian Country Today.)
The immediate impact is still unclear, however, as local officials find
that the decision to send out tax bills is not as simple as it might seem.
The primary blow instead seems to be falling on an intricate series of land
rights settlements embodied in a bill presented by Gov. George Pataki to
the New York state legislators. Previous public hearings on the measure,
Program Bill Six, had largely showcased tribal support. But the most
recent, held in Albany April 5 before 12 state assemblymen from four
legislative committees, turned into an angry exchange of accusations before
a sharply divided crowd of 300.
Much of the drama centered on testimony by Keller George, a Wolf Clan
representative to the New York Oneida Men's Council speaking in his
capacity as president of the United South and Eastern Tribes, the national
lobbying group for 24 Indian Nations east of the Mississippi. George
repeated USET's resolutions against "reservation shopping."
"In at least 12 states," he said, "Indian tribes are seeking to move across
state lines to take advantage of lucrative gaming markets. In most cases,
these efforts are being funded by 'shadowy' developers who underwrite the
litigation expenses, lobbyist fees, and even the cost of land in exchange
for a cut of the profits."
He specifically attacked Pataki's proposal "to allow three new sovereign
Indian tribes into New York: the Wisconsin Stockbridge-Munsee Tribe, the
Oklahoma Seneca-Cayuga Tribe and the Wisconsin Oneida Tribe." The
governor's bill would provide each tribe with a casino in the potentially
rich Catskills market near the New York City metropolitan area in return
for a settlement of their land claims in New York and concessions on state
and local taxation.
"These deals," George charged, "are being driven by a desire to financially
assist the governor's cronies, rather than serving as an attempt to
seriously settle these historic land claim cases." He then listed a number
of former Pataki staff members and fund-raisers with more or less
tangential ties to the tribes or their Catskills projects.
One of the main figures in the testimony, chief executive of Empire Resorts
Robert Berman, testified after George. His company and its predecessors
have gone through at least two tribes in efforts to develop an Indian
casino at the Monticello Raceway, an aging harness racetrack in Monticello,
N.Y. The St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council abruptly broke off ties with the
group in 2002 after receiving damaging information about some of its former
The company currently has contracts with the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of
Oklahoma and the upstate New York Cayuga Nation. When an assemblyman on the
legislative committee questioned Berman about indictments of his former
partners, Berman retorted, "Do you want to talk about jobs and the economy
and saving Sullivan County, or do you want to play '60 Minutes?'"
The hearing also illuminated divisions within the tribes in the bill.
Bernadette Hill, a Cayuga clan mother and one of a group of traditionalists
on the New York tribe's council that oppose a casino, told the committee,
"Tens of millions of dollars are being traded in secret deals among
lawyers, casino developers and lobbyists, while traditional ways and
government are being severely threatened."
George also alluded to a developing split among the Oklahoma membership of
the Seneca-Cayuga, an amalgamated tribe formed by the U.S. government from
bands displaced from New York state and driven through several intermediate
A group of Cayugas led by former Tribal Chief Terry Whitetree wants to
separate from the composite under the name Western Band of Cayugas in
Oklahoma. Whitetree told Indian Country Today that his group had no
interest in a New York casino. He said the Seneca-Cayuga leaders pushing
the project were mainly of Seneca descent, although they had the support of
a majority of the tribal council.
The Seneca-Cayugas, led by Jerry Delliner and Jay White Crow, have been
active in historic Cayuga lands in New York for about two years. They have
opened a gas station and a Class II bingo hall in Aurelius, along Cayuga
Lake, and have asserted tribal sovereignty.
After the Oneidas, they might be the most impacted by the Sherrill
decision. Local officials are discussing bringing a foreclosure action on
the grounds that they have not paid local property tax for two years.
Tax officials in Verona have been more circumspect about taxing the Turning
Stone Resort. An evaluation would have to be made by April 24 to place it
on next year's tax rolls. The property has been tax exempt since it opened
under an agreement with the town, partly because of pressure from the local
school board, which receives voluntary "Silver Covenant" contributions from
the Oneidas. Local officials are puzzling over how the addition of such a
large property to the rolls would affect state formulas for distributing
In the meantime, George has told reporters that the Oneida Nation would
explore the option of placing the property in trust through the U.S.
Department of Interior; the route the Supreme Court said remained open for
establishing tribal sovereignty.
The St. Regis Mohawks, meantime, maintain that the Sherrill case should not
derail their land settlement. They joined the five tribes covered by
Pataki's bill in a March 30 meeting in Albany that was called by the
Wisconsin Oneida to reaffirm support for the bill. The Mohawk settlement
would double the land held by the St. Regis tribe. A tribal council
representative said they understood that the new land would be treated the
same as the existing reservation.
Although the tribal signatories still support the bill, many non-Indians in
New York are having second thoughts. Several central New York county
officials have called for renegotiating the sales tax provisions in light
of the Sherrill decision. A spokesman for Speaker Sheldon Silver of the New
York General Assembly said circumspectly that the decision "would have to
be part of the discussion" about the final draft of the bill.
He noted that the Assembly was still gathering input, with a hearing
scheduled for the Catskills region April 7 and an additional hearing in
Albany for April 18. He said the Assembly decided to add the April 18
hearing because the first Albany session was unable to accommodate all the
people who wanted to speak.