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New York casino fight goes to Washington

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AURELIUS, N.Y. - In-fighting over New York State casino rights is reaching the national arena.

Haudenosaunee (Iroquois League) tribes based in the state have begun to appeal to the Department of the Interior and the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) to intervene against former resident tribes seeking a return to land claims and a lucrative gaming market.

In a recent Washington meeting, the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET) called on Interior and the NIGC "to oppose the efforts of out-of-state Indian nations to conduct gaming in states where they have no political jurisdiction and governance rights." The resolution, passed Feb. 6 at the annual USET Impact Week, specifically attacked what it called "illegal gaming by the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma in New York."

Seneca-Cayuga leaders Jerry Dilliner, a former chief, and spokesman Jay WhiteCrow have taken up residence on a 229-acre site near the central New York town of Aurelius, 30 miles west of Syracuse, which they have declared sovereign tribal territory. Their answering machine calls it the "Seneca-Cayuga outpost." They are currently clearing land and plan to start construction soon on a Class II bingo hall, which they say is scheduled to open by late September.

In an Aurelius town meeting Feb. 13, Town Supervisor Edward Ide said local officials were prepared to intervene when construction began. "Enforcement of town laws is not a discretionary item," he said before a generally well behaved crowd of about 100. WhiteCrow and Dilliner attended and reaffirmed the sovereignty of their land. WhiteCrow answered a series of questions about utility hook-ups.

Clint Halftown, chief of the New York-based Cayuga Nation, also attended. He repeated his tribe's policy against gaming, but later said it applied only to its historic homeland. He refused to comment on a report that he was exploring a gaming compact for the Catskills region, closer to New York City.

In a separate interview with Indian Country Today, WhiteCrow denounced the USET resolution as "absolutely politically motivated." He said his tribe didn't belong to USET, which represents 24 federally recognized tribes primarily located east of the Mississippi.

"They're afraid the gaming pie will get smaller," he said.

Halftown is lobbying Washington to oppose the Seneca-Cayuga plans. "I think the Department of Interior and the Indian Gaming Commission have to deliberate over that issue," he said, "hopefully in consultation with us. We have made a recommendation on what we want."

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He strongly opposed attempts by formerly resident tribes to reassert sovereignty over lands already claimed by in-state tribes. "We feel they do not have that right," he said.

Halftown also criticized the Seneca-Cayugas for intervening in Seneca Nation of Indians affairs in New York as well as in Cayuga claims. The Oklahoma tribe petitioned last November to intervene in a Seneca Nation land claims suit over Cuba Lake in Cattaraugus and Alleghany Counties.

Halftown said the Oklahoma tribe couldn't have it both ways. "We're all matrilinear," he said. "What your mother is is what you are."

In a press release last November announcing the intervention in the Seneca suit, the Seneca-Cayugas described themselves as "a successor-in-interest to the branch of the historic Seneka Nation that left New York State following the taking of New York lands." After a stay in Ohio, where individual Cayuga Tribe members joined the group, the combined tribe moved to Oklahoma. According to its website, a band of Cayuga from Canada joined the Seneca tribe in "Indian Territory" in 1881.

The issue of the rights of out-of-state tribes dominates several other disputes. The Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians, now based in Wisconsin, has purchased land just south of Oneida Indian Nation territory in Oneida, N.Y. The band is suing for return of 23,000 acres around the hamlets of Munnsville and Stockbridge. (Although its purchase of a 122-acre dairy farm now gives the band a Stockbridge, N.Y., address, its name derives from its origin in the 18th century "praying town" of Stockbridge, Mass.)

In papers filed Feb. 10 in the U. S. District Court in Syracuse, the band charged that New York Governor George Pataki's office has refused to negotiate its land claim for five years because of pressure from the Oneida Nation, which owns the Turning Stone Casino Resort just off the nearest exit of the New York Thruway. The highly profitable Turning Stone is the only casino in Central New York.

Stockbridge-Munsee attorney Don Miller charged that the Oneida Nation had warned the governor's office that negotiations with his clients "could prevent settlement in the Oneida land claim."

Separately, the Oneida Tribal Nation of Wisconsin has also filed land claims against individual landowners in the vicinity of Oneida Indian Nation land. One of its suits targets the building housing Oneida Nation administrative offices.

(The Oneida Indian Nation, the New York tribe, owns Four Directions Media, Inc., which is the publisher of Indian Country Today.)

USET membership includes most of the New York-based Haudenosaunee, except for the Onondaga and Tuscarora. Its long-time president, Keller George, is a member of the Oneida Nation Men's Council and chairman of its Gaming Commission.