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Let the Games Begin; Upstate N.Y. Bingo Hall Case Still Undecided

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Tribe repeats settlement-for-casino offer

During a September 2003 hearing on Seneca-Cayuga Tribe v. Town of Aurelius, U.S. District Court Judge Neal P. McCurn said he wanted to resolve the case, which could have implications across Indian country, quickly.

"This case calls out for prompt treatment by the court for the benefit of all the parties," said McCurn at the time. "It cannot lay in wait for a decision to be made in the years ahead."

It looks like the litigants will have to wait a little longer. On March 11, after four hours of debate, McCurn again reserved ruling on the case, saying only that he would issue his decision "soon."

The case stems from the Oklahoma-based tribe's attempt to construct and open a bingo hall in land claim territory in New York. Local and state officials sued seeking tribal compliance with local regulations.

The Seneca-Cayuga position relies largely on issues decided in the 2001 Cayuga Indian land claim case, to which the tribe was a party. In that case, which remains on appeal, McCurn found the tribe to be a "successor-in-interest" to the historic Cayuga nation. This, the tribe believes, allows it to exercise sovereign jurisdiction over land owned within the claim area and to open a Class II gaming facility.

Opponents, including the towns and county in which the land is located, New York state and the Cayuga Indian Nation, argue that the Seneca-Cayugas are not true "successors-in-interest." They say the Oklahoma tribe forfeited land rights in New York when it moved to out-of-state reservation land in the 19th century. The New York Cayugas are adamant their opposition, insisting that the Seneca-Cayugas have abandoned both their traditional Iroquois government and matrilineal descent.

As no tribe has ever crossed state lines for gaming purposes, McCurn's decision could have far-reaching implications. Either way, both sides are likely to appeal if the ruling favors the other.

Remaining in force is a temporary restraining order preventing the Seneca-Cayugas from proceeding with construction of the bingo hall, while also barring the towns, county and state from enforcing local ordinances.

In 2001, McCurn ruled in favor of the Cayuga Indian Nation and the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe, allowing them to reacquire lands in the 64,000-acre claim area that were illegally acquired by New York state in the late 1700s and early 1800s. That decision and the subsequent award of $247.9 million are both under appeal to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court, which is slated to hear arguments on March 31.

SETTLEMENT PLAN PITCHED

Seneca-Cayuga representatives visited Albany in mid-March to again pitch a proposal to settle their share of the Cayuga land claim in return for a Class II casino. The Rochester Democrat & Chronicle reported that downtown Rochester, which local officials are looking to "revitalize," is a potential site for the new gaming facility. Rochester-based mall developer Thomas C. Wilmot is the Seneca-Cayugas' primary financial backer.

Last November, the Oklahoma-based tribe first proposed an out-of-court settlement to the decades-old land claim case in return for a casino in the Catskill Mountains. This time, they seek a Class II facility in western New York. The April 2002 compact between Albany and the Seneca Nation gives that tribe the exclusive right to operate Class III slot machines west of State Route 14, which bisects upstate New York by running north-south along the western shore of Seneca Lake.

"We really see this as a win-win situation," said George McGrath, Seneca-Cayuga spokesman, in the March 18 edition of the Syracuse Post-Standard. "The negative financial consequences of the judgment could be alleviated, the state could expand its revenue stream from gaming, and regions in the state, which are economically hard-pressed, would benefit from new economic development."

The Seneca-Cayuga proposal is similar in to a separate Cayuga Nation plan first proposed in October 2003. Despite its merits, however, the proposal will rest on the back burner until the Oklahoma tribe's status as a "successor-in-interest" in the land claim is conclusively decided.

The Cayuga Nation proposes to sign a Class III compact for a Catskill casino containing revenue sharing provisions similar to those agreed upon by the Seneca Nation for its three western New York casinos. In return, the state drops its appeal of the $247-million judgment in the land claim case. The tribe's land claim compensation is not paid from the state treasury; instead the tribe keeps a higher percentage of gaming proceeds over the first few years of the deal until the total is paid off.

Under the Cayuga proposal, Albany won't have to raid its empty treasury and would still get an estimated $19.5 million in funds from a Cayuga casino during its first year. Once the claim is paid, the state's share of slot revenues jumps dramatically.

More importantly for the Cayuga Nation is the opportunity for economic self-determination. Dollars spent by the tribe will stay local, benefiting
both members and the surrounding non-Indian community, unlike the state's several new racinos, whose profits are sucked directly into the state treasury, never to be seen again.