New York governor's strategy needs work

Author:
Updated:
Original:

New York Gov. George Pataki failed his recent exams in the quest for an
honorary Indian policy Ph.D. After withdrawing his settlement legislation
with out-of-state tribes last week (a bad idea from the start), he is back
to the drawing board; his new paper on resolving tribal issues within the
state is expected next.

We have followed Pataki's education in Indian affairs since his early
trials by fire with the Indian nations within the state in 1997. Pataki
bore the brunt of one of that year's famous Iroquois uprisings when Senecas
and Mohawks joined in protest to protect their long-established economic
freedoms.

This was a powerful moment for the Haudenosaunee nations, not only because
their men and women were willing to stand up for themselves on their own
lands, but because many Indians - from laborers to doctorate recipients -
joined hands across the board to ward off the state troopers and allow
social calm and economic freedom to return. Push Iroquois Indians far
enough and they will go to the barricades. Show enough respect for the true
history of their lands, and all manner of collaboration and friendship is
possible.

The governor came back from the bruising confrontation that was his failed
first exam much more willing to consider the positive opportunities in
tribal sovereignty. For a time it seemed solution-oriented negotiations
between New York and tribal leaders were happening, which was unusual
enough; however, distrust reigned on both sides of the table.

As the state sized up its shopping list of Indian goodies to carve for
itself, the Indian leadership, based on the best legal minds it could
contract, hunkered down to get as close to "it all" as it could. Some good
deals were offered and passed up on by various sides during that period -
deals that look better now, in light of the City of Sherrill v. Oneida
Indian Nation of New York U.S. Supreme Court decision, and in light of the
governor's troubled out-of-state-tribes complication.

The deficit-driven governor injected chaos into his negotiations with the
state's actual tribes - those with continuous ancient and historical
residence in New York - when he bypassed them to negotiate deals directly
(and in some cases exclusively) with tribes based in other states. Pataki
signed deals for Catskills casinos with three out-of-state tribes: the
Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin, the Stockbridge-Munsee Tribe of Wisconsin and
the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma. He also signed deals with two in-state
tribes, the Cayuga Indian Nation and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe.

Pataki has now pulled his bill that would have granted five casinos in the
Catskills to these tribes, pointing to the recent Sherrill decision for
withdrawing. But realistically, the bill was becoming untenable in the face
of serious opposition. Even the affected Catskills counties, which look
forward to the economic bonanza of gaming, like the idea of starting with
only one tribal government (likely the Mohawk as of this writing).

As expected, in-state resident tribes have been incensed at Pataki. If one
can't quite blame any tribe for working to extend its reach, economically
or politically, the cynicism emerging from the state's negotiators was
palpable. Tribes that stood their ground when the state's Grim Reaper tried
to slice into their revenues were sidestepped while out-of-state tribes and
even, apparently, the Mohawks capitulated to taxation by New York in order
to settle claims and get in line for the now-legendary Catskills casinos.

When appeals to the governor for fair negotiations fell on deaf ears, the
in-state tribes sought counsel and support from the many national
situations where "reservation shopping" has complicated already complex
land claim and casino compact negotiations. There is plenty of antagonism
toward the idea of "reservation shopping," particularly when used as a
wedge against in-state tribal nations' legitimate interests. A range of
good arguments against "reservation shopping" were expressed here recently
in columns by U.S. Rep. Richard Pombo and San Manuel Tribal Chairman Deron
Marquez, among others.

"[The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act] was intended to protect tribes from
greedy outside interests such as developers and governors eager to get
their hands on a 'fair share' of tribes' gaming revenues," wrote Pombo, but
"[s]ome tribes seeking off-reservation gaming deals eagerly offer to give
away some of the rights won for all tribes."

We agree enough with the ranking congressman on Indian affairs on this
issue to repeat his words. Pombo warned of a very old but true reality:
"Once a tribe is willing to share sky-high percentages of its revenue with
a state government deep in debt, soon all tribes will be expected to follow
..."

In New York, as the out-of-state deals floundered and the Oneida Nation
readjusted to the land process prescribed by the Supreme Court, the Mohawks
jumped ahead into a boat of their own. A major in-state tribe, with the
terms of its land claim approved in community referenda and enjoying a
consistent relationship with Pataki, the Mohawks may yet be building the
first Indian casino in the Catskills.

While too many Indian governments are mired in controversy, support from
local governments for their settlement gave the Mohawks an edge and allowed
them alone to move ahead of the pack for a land claim settlement and a
legitimate and rightful shot at the Catskills.

No one can begrudge the Mohawks their own deserved choice location for an
economically viable casino in the Catskills. The area is, after all, in the
Mohawk ancestral territory. But it is now more important than ever for the
Mohawks (and all New York tribes) not to capitulate on the issue of state
taxation. From whatever trust lands they can obtain, by virtue of the legal
standing and definition of the trust relationship with the federal
government, all tribes need to maintain the position of trust lands being
free of local and state taxation.

Every state that can get away with it is sticking its feeding tube into the
newly-lucrative Indian economies. Accusing the tribes of "not giving their
fair share," greedy governors, hungry for revenues denied them at the
federal level, now bite rapaciously at the Indian budgets, slashing at the
jurisdictional sovereignty inherent to tribal American Indians and making a
mockery of the letter and spirit of the Indian Gaming and Regulatory Act
(IGRA).

That imperfect act of Congress, an attempt by Las Vegas gaming interests
and the states to limit the clear victory for tribal sovereignty in the
Cabazon decision, nonetheless worked to re-empower Indian economic bases.
Revenues were meant to fuel a required range of social and governmental
services, and when possible to capitalize long-impoverished Indian
communities. As capital built, the expectation was that such monies as the
tribes invested and gifted to national projects would grow to strengthen
all of Indian country, including those tribes with limited or no access to
gaming and other profitable industries.

The past few years have shown good sign of just that, too, with well-heeled
Indian tribes turning to invest in and donate to businesses and programs
that stimulate the economies of less-fortunate communities. Unfortunately,
the full potential of Indian-to-Indian development is destroyed by the pack
of rabid predators now running most states in the Union. In our view, every
dollar given to the states by Indian governments is one less dollar of
opportunity for American Indians.

The expectation of IGRA was not for the tribes to directly finance states'
coffers, usually in usurious percentages of blatant extortion way out of
proportion with what other corporations and even non-Indian gaming
enterprises pay in taxes. IGRA was to help Indian country, the poorest and
most incredibly extorted population - in terms of real property and
resources - in North America.

Somewhere along the line, states and their top officials forgot the first
cause of IGRA. Pataki's people would have saved everyone a lot of trouble
by simply understanding that Indian sovereignty is true and good and is
meant to be of benefit for his region (and the country), and he should
strive to negotiate win-win solutions with the tribes. Remember, even in
addition to the outrageous revenue-sharing percentages forced upon many
tribal casinos, Indian enterprises employ thousands of taxpaying workers
who provide a tremendous economic stimulus to their regions and states.

The tribes, too, as the Supreme Court made clear, must work toward
negotiating win-win deals. Legal campaigns alone do not define the final
outcome of a battle, much less a war. Eye-on-the-prize consistency is a
keen aptitude of all great leaders. More than ever, leaders should strive
toward tribal unity of both mind and economic opportunity as fundamental
principles.