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Interior Rejects Wisconsin Tribe’s Off-Reservation Casino

The federal government has rejected a bid by a Wisconsin tribe to build an off reservation casino in New York’s Catskills area, more than 1,000 miles from its land base, citing legal concerns with the tribal-state gaming compact.

The Interior Department decided Friday, February 18, to disapprove the tribal-state Class III gaming compact submitted by the state of New York and the Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians of Wisconsin. The band had asked Interior to take 330 acres of land into trust in Sullivan County, N.Y., where it intended to build a $700 million casino. The band had agreed to take the 330 acres for a casino in exchange for dropping its decades old land claim for 23,000 acres in Madison County. The compact was forged by the band and former New York Gov. David Paterson behind closed doors last year and announced suddenly in late November just weeks before he left office.

The Interior Department did not issue a press release announcing its decision, but BIA spokeswoman Nedra Darling read a statement to inquiring media. The decision was rendered by Del Laverdure, principal deputy assistant secretary for Indian Affairs. Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs Larry EchoHawk had recused himself from the file, likely because his brother John Echohawk, executive director of the Native American Rights Fund, represented the band.

The department’s chief concern was that the compact would restrict tribal trust land by allowing the tribe only to conduct gaming and related activities on the land.

“The department has not approved any prior contract that contained such a restriction. Moreover, this restriction violated the terms of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act itself because it’s not a subject over which tribes and states may negotiate a gaming compact,” the statement said.

The decision supports reports that had emerged earlier in the week that officials were not happy with the band’s application. The band had taken the unusual path of filing a land into trust application along with a land claim for what it asserted were its aboriginal lands in Madison County, the aboriginal territory of the Oneida Indian Nation. The band claimed it did not need to ask Congress to approve its land claim, but federal officials were wary of the unusual legal approach, according to an Associated Press (AP) report.

"The Department of the Interior has a very dim view of the untested legal underpinnings of the casino and land settlement," an unnamed official had said.

The tribe and state may negotiate and submit new gaming compact for department review at any time, according to the statement. “Approval of the tribal-state gaming compact is a condition precedent to that proposed settlement agreement.”

Stockbridge-Munsee President Kimberly Vele issued a statement expressing unhappiness with Interior’s action. "It is disheartening that the U.S. Department of the Interior has done an 11th-hour about-face by failing to support and finalize these agreements. While we believe the department's rationale is weak, we are committed to resolving the issues," Vele said.

Now that the federal government has denied the casino project, the band’s original land claim comes back into focus. Vele said the casino project would have "removed a cloud over thousands of acres" in central New York state while creating thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in annual payments to the local county. She said the band would continue “to work with local leaders and the state to pursue all available options.”

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) who worked with Paterson on the under-the-radar negotations with the Stockbridge-Munsee, echoed Vele in his promise not to abandon his efforts.

"This project would have created jobs and economic development in a region that desperately needs it, but it's not the end of the line," Schumer said. "I will continue to work with local leaders and the state to pursue all available options."

The Oneida Indian Nation welcomed Interior’s decision. During the 18th century, the Oneida Nation had given refuge to various Indian communities including the Brothertown Indians and the Stockbridge-Munsee band, whose land claim asserts ownership of some of Oneida’s aboriginal territory.

“All former Governor David Paterson or Senator Charles Schumer had to do before concocting this deal was to open a history book to know that, unlike the Oneida Indian Nation which has been here since time immemorial, the Stockbridge-Munsee of Wisconsin have no historical claims to land in this state,” Mark Emery, Oneida Nation’s director of communications, said in a statement. “Nearly two centuries ago, the Stockbridge Munsee temporarily visited the Oneida homelands as our guests and then they left. They have no more claim to land in New York than does a guest at a hotel. No federal agency, no federal court, no federal body has ever recognized any legitimate claim of the Stockbridge Munsee to lands in New York. Had the proper amount of time been given to conduct oversight hearings and allow for public input rather than pushing this deal through in the dark of night, countless state resources would not have been wasted peddling a proposal that was never legitimate.”

The Seneca Nation formally opposed the Stockbridge-Munsee-Paterson deal in a seven page letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in December, calling the proposal “bad public policy and likely unlawful.” In response to Interior’s decision, Seneca Nation President Robert Odawi Porter said the Stockbridge Munsee deal “would have required exceptions to federal Indian policy that would have wreaked havoc in other parts of the country. Federal law requires that any Indian nation exercise government jurisdiction over its lands. Obviously a Wisconsin tribe cannot do that in upstate New York. As an element of national policy, the Seneca Nation supports all tribes’ economic development efforts and their claims on aboriginal lands. But we could not support unwise policy choices or violations of federal law. We are very pleased that this last-minute deal by an out-going governor is dead.”

Racino owners, who filed a lawsuit in State Supreme Court in Albany to block the Stockbridge-Munsee casino, also applauded Interior’s decision. The band’s proposed casino would have been 90 minutes away from Aqueduct racetrack where a subsidiary of Malaysian casino giant Genting plans to build a 4,500-slots casino.

“By rejecting this ill-conceived compact, the Department of Interior has allowed New York State to go back to the drawing board and put together a gaming policy that makes sense,” the New York Gaming Association, which represents racetrack casino operators, told the Daily Racing Form. “We are extremely pleased with DOI’s decision and look forward to working with Gov. Cuomo and the state Legislature to develop a gaming policy that maximizes revenue, creates jobs and keeps the racetrack casino economic engine churning.”

Cuomo spokesman Josh Vlasto also responded to Interior’s decision in a statement, Politics on the Hudson reported.

“We appreciate the Department’s considered review of the matter and look forward to economic development projects that will nurture and expand opportunities in the Catskills,” Vlasto said.