Intricate dealings involve sovereignty and gaming rights
Almost in spite of itself, the Cayuga Indian land claim case appears to be
lurching along toward some sort of resolution. According to reports in
various Upstate media, negotiations between New York's governor and the two
involved tribes may be making some headway. Settling the decades-old
litigation will not only affect the gaming landscape in Central New York,
but will also leave all parties involved better off, even if some of them
don't realize it.
The Cayuga land claim involves a 64,000-acre horseshoe-shaped tract at the
northern end of Cayuga Lake, between the Upstate cities of Rochester and
Syracuse. In 1980, the Cayuga Nation of New York sued New York state
seeking damages for the state's illegal acquisition of Cayuga reservation
land in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of
Oklahoma later joined the case as a plaintiff.
In 2001, a federal judge awarded the two tribes $247 million in damages;
that decision remains under appeal to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in
Manhattan, which heard arguments in March and is expected to issue a
decision in the coming months.
Both tribal governments have acquired land within the claim area. The
Cayugas have opened two small Class II bingo halls and a pair of
gas/convenience store operations. The Seneca-Cayugas are presently barred
from building a Class II gaming facility on their land until a federal
judge rules on whether the Oklahoma-based tribe can exercise sovereignty
over their 229-acre parcel in the town of Aurelius.
Because their ancestors emigrated from NewYork and eventually coalesced to
form a tribal government that now sits in Oklahoma, many believe that the
tribe forfeited any rights to land in the Empire state and cannot legally
cross state lines for gaming purposes.
FORGING A SOLUTION
While Albany boasts what may well be the most dysfunctional state
legislature in the country, the executive branch is at least attempting to
deal with the Cayuga question.
Governor George Pataki and Cayuga Nation representative Timothy Twoguns in
June signed a non-binding memorandum of understanding, the terms of which
allow the nation to acquire and exercise sovereignty over 10,000 acres
within the claim area.
The deal also grants the Cayugas a Class III casino in the Catskills while
calling for them to shut down their two Class II operations within a
specified time frame. Municipal governments whose tax rolls are affected by
reversion of land to Indian country status will be generously compensated
and Cayuga-owned businesses will charge a nation tax on retail goods so as
to allow non-Indian merchants in the area to remain competitive. The nation
would of course drop its appeal to the land claim ruling and would receive
an undetermined percentage of the original financial award.
Although Pataki originally voiced a policy of non-negotiation with
out-of-state tribes, the reality of the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe as winners in
the land claim forced a change. Initially, talks centered on granting the
Oklahoma tribe Class II casino rights in downtown Rochester; vocal
opposition from a city in need of an economic boost has apparently scotched
Enter Timothy Lattimore, mayor of Auburn, a small, economically-moribund
city 25 miles southwest of Syracuse. Lattimore and David Sikora, supervisor
of the adjacent town of Sennett, have actively encouraged the
Seneca-Cayugas to examine placing a casino in Sennett.
"It seems like Aurelius has a hard time accepting the fact that this is
economic development," Lattimore told the Auburn Citizen on June 29.
In contrast to many other local politicians and activists, Lattimore and
Sikora understand the employment and tourist-attracting benefits a gaming
facility could bring to the area. National outdoor retailer BassPro is
currently constructing a large outlet in Auburn; an Indian casino would
give the city, already in the middle of a great region for outdoor sports,
a complementary tourist draw.
The Cayugas reportedly have no objection to a Seneca-Cayuga gaming
operation, provided it is not in the land claim area, which the site in
Sennett is not. The Cayugas continue to reiterate that two tribes cannot
exercise sovereignty within the same land claim area.
In return for a New York casino, the Seneca-Cayugas would drop their land
claim appeal, and would likely have to give up on gaming at the Aurelius
site. They would be the first tribe since IGRA's passage in 1988 to conduct
gaming in a state other than that of their recognition.
Pataki deserves credit for trying to do the right thing. The Cayugas will
benefit by getting a Catskill casino, which will generate funds and allow
them to repurchase land in their ancestral territory. State and local
governments will benefit by: A) Having the land claim monkey off their
backs, and B) Adding a potentially lucrative revenue stream to their
The Seneca-Cayugas could benefit as well by gaining a casino and other
potential economic development opportunities in Upstate New York. Their
situation remains one to watch; if they are successful in crossing state
lines, a precedent could be set for other tribes displaced from and wishing
to conduct business in their ancestral homelands.
THEY JUST DON'T GET IT
Many local officials, including the head of the Seneca County legislature's
land claim committee, have been waving around copies of the unfortunate
land claim settlement signed between the state of Maine and the Penobscot
and Passamaquoddy tribes in 1983. Many in the county oppose attempts to
settle the land claim and tout the Maine deal, which basically stripped the
tribal governments of much of their sovereignty and hampers them to this
day, as a template for any "deal" with the Cayuga or Seneca-Cayuga tribes.
These folks support keeping the case in the courts and vow to appeal all
the way to the Supreme Court if necessary.
It's too bad that they can't bring themselves to accept the reality of
Indian presence, in this case the pending return of the Cayuga Nation to
its historic homeland, in their communities. It's unfortunate as well that
they consistently fail to accept inherent Indian sovereignty and refuse to
work constructively with tribal governments for the benefit of both Indian
and non-Indian residents. Instead of fighting tooth and nail to protect
their turf, they could be working to create jobs, promote tourism and
generally improve relations between two different peoples that both call
Central New York home. They just don't get it.