Mounting resistance kills dubious Pataki land claims bill

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Out-of-state casinos out, tax deal back on table

ALBANY, N.Y. - Mohawk delegates met with negotiators for New York state
Gov. George Pataki April 19 to push forward their land settlement in the
aftermath of the governor's sudden withdrawal of his omnibus Indian claims
bill.

Brendan White, spokesman for the St. Regis Mohawk (Akwesasne) Tribal
Council, said the governor had promised to file a new bill within days to
enact the intensively-negotiated land agreement. The deal, which would
eventually double the size of the Mohawk reservation in the United States,
has already won approval in referenda in Akwesasne communities on both
sides of the border.

White emphasized that any agreements on taxation remained to be negotiated
separately and would go through a similar process of community approval.

The Mohawks seemed audibly relieved to be back on their own after
entanglement in Pataki's ambitious effort to settle a broad range of Indian
issues in one bill. Although the measure, Program Bill 06, ostensibly would
have settled five land suits, the bulk of its language set up a framework
for collecting state and local taxes on Indian territory. It lost early
momentum quickly under attacks from all sides. In-state tribal leaders
vehemently protested concessions to out-of-state tribes. Anti-sovereignty
local politicians fought the emergence of self-governing Indian territory.

The U.S. Supreme Court dealt a fatal blow with its March 29 City of
Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York decision, eliminating
"unilateral" declarations of sovereignty on recovered tribal land but
leaving growing confusion about the alternatives. Pataki abruptly took the
bill off the table April 15 when leaders of the state Legislature made it
clear they would rework it extensively in light of Sherrill.

The bill's demise also eased internal pressure in the Cayuga Indian Nation
of New York, which had splintered politically after initially accepting a
land deal with Pataki. The deal would have lopped $100 million off a $247
million settlement already awarded by a federal district judge but
currently under appeal, and would have accepted state taxation in return
for a casino compact in the Catskills. Cayuga leader Clint Halftown
repudiated the deal weeks after signing it, and a traditional segment on
the council refused to accept it at all, but two other representatives
financed by a casino backer continued to support it.

Land and casino agreements with the three other tribes covered in the bill
appear to be in limbo. The Seneca-Cayuga tribe of Oklahoma is a
co-plaintiff with the New York Cayuga and a third band in Canada in the
decades-old lawsuit over 64,000 acres in the Finger Lakes region now
adjudicated to have been illegally conveyed in the late 18th and early 19th
centuries. The Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin and the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of
Mohicans, also based in Wisconsin, were affiliated in an even older suit
over 300,000 acres in central New York. The Oneida Indian Nation of New
York has repurchased 17,000 of the acres with proceeds from its businesses,
including the Turning Stone Resort and Casino, but did not accept the
settlement or the bill.

(Oneida Nation enterprises include Four Directions Media, publisher of
Indian Country Today.)

Since Pataki appeared to hope that state and congressional approval of his
bill would impose a settlement on the New York Oneidas, the tribe lobbied
hard to defeat it and issued a satisfied statement when he withdrew it. The
Oneidas focused their attack in Congress on the "reservation shopping" that
would have brought out-of-state tribes into the New York market. The House
Natural Resources Committee held critical hearings on the subject, which
also concerned Midwestern and California tribes; chairman Richard Pombo,
R-Calif., attacked it in a column for Indian Country Today.

Much of the state's attention has focused on the struggle over tribal
casinos in the Catskills, a potentially lucrative market a day-trip away
from New York City.

Less noted but more significant for Indian country, withdrawal of the bill
gives a second wind to the long-standing resistance to state taxation of
sales on tribal land.

Because of grassroots direct action, the state had in the past backed away
from enforcing a U.S. Supreme Court decision authorizing its plans to tax
reservation sales to non-Indians. On two occasions in the 1990s, tribal
protesters closed interstate highways and fought state police over
implementation of the state regulations. After six weeks of turmoil in
1997, Pataki made a dramatic speech affirming tribal sovereignty and
suspending the tax attempts.

Votes by the state Legislature in the last two budget bills revived these
regulations, and tribal resistance seemed to be weakening, Out-of-state
tribes accepted state taxation in their planned casinos, even on sales to
other Indians. These agreements undermined a framework sought by the
Mohawks which would have replaced state enforcement on the reservation with
a "trade agreement" on pricing: Although the Mohawks intended separate
negotiations on the trade agreement, the terms of Pataki's Program Bill 06
seemed to prejudice the outcome.

White, spokesman for the St. Regis council, said the standalone bill was
expected to reemphasize the trade negotiations. "If the bill is similar to
what was previously introduced," he told Indian Country Today, "it will
have language that authorizes the governor to enter into and negotiate a
trade agreement for our community.

"The tribal council will also be seeking the approval of tribal members to
enter into negotiations with the state. The decision of accepting the terms
of any arrangement will be determined in a community referendum after it
has been presented for public review and comment."