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Let the Games Begin: Wisconsin Oneidas hope to settle land claim, score casino

The maneuvering and posturing surrounding New York's Indian land claims and gaming scene took yet another twist recently. The Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin made its presence in its ancestral homeland a "certainty" with the acquisition of 250 acres in the Upstate town of Verona.

In the 19 years since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Oneida people had a valid land claim against the State of New York, mediation and negotiation have failed to produce a settlement. Thus, the Wisconsin Oneidas "are taking aggressive action to right an ancient wrong and to ensure the security of their ancestral lands and prosperity for the citizens of their nation," according to a Nov. 19 press release.

Tribal leaders have offered to settle their share of the outstanding land litigation, dropping their claim for damages in exchange for a casino either at the Verona site or on 84 acres they own in Sullivan County in the Catskills. They also promise to negotiate deals with Albany regarding sales taxes and casino revenue sharing and to hire union workers to build and staff their facilities. They seek positive government-to-government relations with municipal authorities.

"We have undertaken an ambitious strategy to bring the claim to closure," said Tina Danforth, tribal chairwoman, adding that the Wisconsin Oneidas will not seek the eviction of current landowners, but will strive for "just and equitable compensation for our losses."

New York officials, including Governor George Pataki, are looking to both get the land-claim monkey off their backs while finding new sources of revenue for their cash-strapped coffers. Thus, the state's tribes have felt pressure to link land settlements, casino rights, revenue sharing and sales tax accommodations in comprehensive negotiations that would supposedly formalize multiple aspects of tribal-state relations. Some politicians have expressed angst over the slow progress on opening the six casinos authorized in October 2001, only one of which, the Seneca-Niagara, is up and running.

Pataki's recent flip-flop, allowing "out-of-state" tribes to negotiate for the three Catskill casinos, adds incentive to the mix. Among New York tribes, the St. Regis Mohawks, Oneidas, Cayugas and Senecas have all expressed interest in the Catskills, as have the Wisconsin Oneidas and the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohicans, also from Wisconsin.

Land buy

In a move that caught some observers by surprise, the Wisconsin Oneidas on Nov. 19 announced a 250-acre land acquisition in Verona. The property, an old dairy farm, lies a long stone's throw from the Turning Stone, the successful and growing casino resort complex owned by the Oneida Nation of New York. Also nearby is Vernon Downs, a harness track slated to open a 1,100-machine video slot parlor.

While the tribe says it may build an "entertainment center" on the land, it could in fact be angling toward a Class II operation at the site, which lies within the 250,000-acre Oneida land claim area in Madison and Oneida counties, between Syracuse and Utica. In 1985, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Wisconsin Oneidas, along with the Oneida Nation of New York and the Canadian Oneida of the Thames, jointly have a valid claim to land in that area. The Wisconsin Oneidas reason that this gives them sovereign jurisdiction over claim-area lands they purchase; under IGRA, Class II gaming may be conducted on tribal land without state interference or oversight.

So even if they lose out in the Class III Catskill casino sweepstakes, the Wisconsin Oneidas could still tap into the Upstate gaming/tourism market with Class II gaming and associated amenities. The Wisconsin tribe also owns 84 acres in Sullivan County in the Catskills.

The Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma has already tried a similar tactic. Its attempts to construct and open a Class II bingo hall on Cayuga land claim territory in Aurelius, west of Syracuse, have been thus far thwarted by local municipal governments, who have taken the Oklahomans to federal court over their refusal to submit to local zoning and building codes. That case is on hold until March, when Judge Neal McCurn will review historical evidence regarding what jurisdiction, if any, the Oklahoma tribe may exercise over territory it owns within the Cayuga land claim.

The Seneca-Cayugas, along with the Cayuga Nation of New York, is a winning party to the Cayuga land claim, the decision and monetary award for which remain under appeal.

The Wisconsin Oneidas are descendents of Oneidas who, displaced from their lands by growing numbers of non-Indian settlers, migrated westward beginning in the 1820s. The tribe has approximately 15,000 enrolled members and operates a number of businesses, including a casino, at its reservation near Green Bay. The Oneida of the Thames, with some 5,000 members, have a 5400-acre reserve near London, Ontario, which was first settled in 1840.

Efforts to settle the Oneida land claim have been consistently stymied. A February 2002 settlement proposal forged between the New York Oneidas and Albany, without Wisconsin or Canadian participation, collapsed when the federal government (which wasn't consulted either) balked at contributing $250 million.

Who's in the driver's seat?

With several tribes jockeying for position and negotiations carried out behind closed doors, it is difficult to say who's winning. The Wisconsin Oneidas' stated willingness to work with local governments and work out tax arrangements could be big marks in their favor.

By opening, in word if not in deed, the Catskill casino game to "out-of-state" tribes, Albany tightened the competition. That Catskill compacts will contain revenue sharing is virtually a given; insisting on comprehensive settlements, although complicating negotiations, could work well in the getting the deals done, and defining parameters in relations between Albany and the tribes.

The Cayuga Nation of New York in October made settlement overtures to Albany, proposing that, in exchange for a Catskill casino, the nation would allow damages to be paid through funds generated by the casino. This saves the fiscally-ailing state from having to go further into the red, but limits early returns on revenue sharing. The Cayugas also offered negotiations toward sales tax parity. BIA's eastern regional office has completed action on the tribe's Catskill casino application, but has not released its findings, pending review from the bureau's Washington headquarters.

The St. Regis Mohawks have gone the opposite route, preferring to "de-couple" the land claim and casino issues and deal with them separately. The tribal government recently rejected a memorandum of understanding reached between its predecessor and Albany aimed at resolving differences. The tribe has offered to share revenue from its existing Akwesasne casino and a possible Catskill one, for which the BIA will take land into trust.

The Seneca Nation steadfastly refuses to collect or discuss collection of state taxes on reservation sales, an action mandated by the state legislature during this year's session, and has mounted a vigorous public relations campaign to explain why. The nation recently broke ground for its second casino at Salamanca in western New York.