Community Partnership benefits St. Regis Mohawks

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AKWESASNE, N.Y. – Though Akwesasne’s two gaming facilities – a bingo hall and casino – have been operating for years, Mohawks living on the upstate New York reservation have yet to see a dime from per capita payments. Instead, the community has reaped the benefits of gaming dollars in countless other ways and can credit a new tribal program with guaranteeing future benefits.

The Community Partnership program was formed in 2004 on a trial basis to give the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe – owners of the Mohawk Bingo Palace and Akwesasne Mohawk Casino – a system to follow in order to funnel gaming revenue to community causes. Since then, the program has flourished and become a well-oiled machine that has allowed the tribe and its two gaming enterprises to share revenue with various profit and nonprofit causes in areas in and around Akwesasne.

Janique Odjick was employed in the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino’s marketing department in 2003 and she spearheaded the Community Partnership program when she and her colleagues realized that the number of requests made to them for sponsorship and donations was something that needed management. Until then, all individuals and groups with sponsorship requests needed to approach the tribe’s Donations Committee, which, given the number of requests, could be a lengthy process.

“We didn’t want to make these individuals jump through hoops,” said Odjick, who now doubles as the Mohawk Bingo Palace’s marketing manager as well as the Community Partnership coordinator.

The development of Community Partnership divided up the sponsorship requests so that small-scale requests still go through the Donations Committee, but larger-scale events or long-term requests for sponsorship go through Community Partnership; in many cases, an agreement is in place specifying the dollars the party will receive. In many instances, the only thing the Community Partnership asks for in return is recognition at the event in the form of placing a banner or including the Community Partnership’s logo and promotional items.

The Mohawk Bingo Palace opened in 1985 and has since been developed into a Class II casino as well, generating millions of dollars for the tribe each year. More than 50 percent of customers are Canadians who’ve traveled over the nearby border to play high-stakes bingo and dabble on video gaming machines.

The Akwesasne Mohawk Casino opened in 1999 and as a Class III gaming operation it has become a premier destination for northern New Yorkers and Canadians.

In the past two years many events in and around Akwesasne have been decorated with large banners noting Community Partnership’s role in making the event happen, and print and radio advertisements are often accompanied by a note acknowledging the program.

Among the recipients of funding so far have been the Akwesasne Winter Carnival,
a week-long family-oriented event; amateur boxing events; the Mountain of Toys Christmas toy drive; a wellness fair; the Senior Citizen’s club and its new facility; and countless others events and causes.

“We identified areas that needed help and we created a budget,” Odjick said.

The program contributed sponsorship dollars to the Akwesasne Pow Wow – an event that has become a bigger and bigger mark on the pow wow trail each year and features dancers from across Indian country.

According to Odjick, Community Partnership has given the tribe and its gaming facilities a vehicle with which to help children and other non-gaming groups that aren’t part of the gaming facilities’ target advertising group.

“We target gamers; we don’t target children,” she said.

Community Partnership gives the tribe a way to provide funding to those child-related causes and events that would not normally have been in receipt of the casino’s and bingo hall’s advertising dollars. One of the community’s recreation centers will now receive funding from the tribe’s program that will help them pay for 10 different events this year. The St. Regis Recreation Center hosts such family-oriented events as a haunted house at Halloween and a crafts and activities week for children during spring break.

Perhaps one of the most widespread benefits to date to have come from the Community Partnership has been the donation of $360,000 towards a fuel assistance program. Those dollars assisted hundreds of low-income households and senior citizens last winter by providing them with free fuel vouchers.

While the issue of per capita payments is occasionally brought forward at tribal meetings as some community members would like to learn more and possibly receive them, there are no plans to adopt that practice and the revenue is used for other community needs and programs. One of the tribe’s biggest expenses and areas of concern is the St. Regis Mohawk Health Facility, which provides health care to thousands of tribal members but is without adequate funding year after year. Community Partnership recently announced that it’s working out the final details of an agreement that will benefit the health facility.

Per capita payments are an option for the future [but] we have a tremendous amount of unmet community needs that need to be fulfilled first,” said St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Chief James Ransom. “For example, we anticipate a $2.5 million shortfall for health care in 2006 and gaming revenues will help us address that shortfall. Our health service commitment this year will be $1 million and will grow to $1.5 million in 2007. Our tribal courts, police and housing are other areas that need support … there is a $10 million housing need in the community and our commitment to law enforcement is growing every year. The federal government continues to cut funding to domestic programs and the tribe is going to have to make up the difference or programs will suffer.”

While Akwesasne community members might be the most directly affected by the Community Partnership program, events outside the territory have also been major recipients of sponsorship.

“We recognized that the surrounding communities support us and this is a way to give back,” Odjick said.

Since the adoption of the Community Partnership program, dozens of off-reservation events have named the program as their main sponsor.

The town of Massena, Akwesasne’s closest neighbor, holds an annual fireworks show but this year the Fourth of July tradition was in jeopardy, Odjick said. Action was taken by the tribe and its gaming facilities, and the show went on.

“If it was not for our Community Partnership, I’m not sure they would have had fireworks this year,” Odjick said.

While ongoing issues like taxation and land claims have sometimes created tension between the Akwesasne community and its non-Native neighbors, Community Partnership is doing its part to keep friendly relations.

“Because of the Community Partnership, we now have a relationship with the St. Lawrence and Franklin counties,” said Jessica Cree, public information officer for the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, of Akwesasne’s two neighboring counties.

According to Odjick, sharing gaming revenues with outside communities has “helped to improve the lines of communication,” she said.

The Community Partnership was fully adopted in January of this year after two years in trial form. The program has been hailed as a model for other gaming communities to follow, and Odjick has been asked to speak at conferences on gaming to share the program with other tribes.

“I really, really believe in this project,” Odjick said. “I have a vision for it. … We want to build a better tomorrow.”