Skip to main content

New York offer of casinos for land causes upheaval

  • Author:
  • Updated:

ONEIDA NATION HOMELAND, N.Y. - Tensions among the widely-dispersed nations
of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy) are rising sharply as New York
state Gov. George Pataki is dangling the prospect of added tribal casinos
in the Catskills region to settle land claims suits and pit Native
plaintiffs against each other.

On Dec. 7, Pataki announced an agreement that would add two more tribal
casinos to the three already approved by state law for the Catskills and
use them to settle land claims suits by two Wisconsin-based tribes that
emigrated from New York in the early 19th century. The statement followed a
deal announced in November that would use Catskills casinos to settle a
separate, already litigated land claim by the Cayuga Nation of New York and
its co-plaintiff, the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma. A federal district
judge awarded the Cayuga plaintiffs nearly $250 million, but the amount is
under appeal.

Separately, the state also reached a land settlement with the Akwesasne
Mohawk community straddling the U.S. - Canadian border. Two of the three
Akwesasne community governments recently approved the deal in referenda and
the third, the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs, the traditional body
spanning both countries, was scheduled to debate the agreement in a meeting
with clans Dec. 11. The St. Regis Mohawk tribal council, which governs the
reservation on the U.S. side, was the first tribe to receive federal
approval for a Catskill casino and with its partner, Caesar's
Entertainment, has already invested $42 million in its development.

But the rapidly accelerated deal making has aroused vehement opposition
from two New York state-based Iroquois Nations with already operating and
highly profitable casinos. The Oneida Indian Nation and the Seneca Nation
of Indians criticized the casino offers to out-of-state tribes and have
begun lobbying against the series of approvals that would be needed at
several levels of government.

(The Oneida Indian Nation owns Four Directions Media, publisher of Indian
Country Today.)

The St. Regis Tribal Council issued a more diplomatic statement, urging
that any new Catskills casino projects be held to the series of regulatory
steps with which its own project has already complied.

The most recent deals, in fact, seemed highly intangible, since the two
additional casinos for the Wisconsin tribes have not even been authorized
by the state legislature. The entire situation defies simple explanation,
since it compounds casino politics with New York state land claims with
Haudenosaunee internal relations, three of the more tangled phenomena of
the modern age.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

The recent casino deals appeared to give New York state a victory on the
highly-charged issue of state tax collections on reservations, which
sparked a wave of grassroots tribal protests and Interstate highway
closures when last pressed by Gov Pataki in 1997. According to the
Governor's office, the two Wisconsin tribes agreed to remit state and local
tax collections at their casinos. St. Regis Mohawk voters turned out a
previous tribal council that had negotiated a tax deal with the state and
its recent land settlement excluded the tax issue entirely. Seneca Nation
negotiators refused to discuss taxation at all in working out the compact
that gave them two working casinos and the right to a third.

The Governor's office also claimed that the Dec. 7 announcement ended the
Oneida land claim suit over 300,000 acres in Central New York, a statement
both confusing and confused. Three Oneida governments originally brought
the suit a generation ago, the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, the Oneida
Indian Nation of New York and the Oneida of the Thames in Ontario, Canada.
Only the Wisconsin Oneida agreed to the Dec. 7 settlement. A spokesman for
the Oneida Indian Nation said, "This announcement does not solve the Oneida
Nation's land claim." The Thames Oneidas were not even mentioned.

A spokesman for the governor's office told local press in Upstate New York
that the deal in effect imposed a settlement on the New York Oneidas,
limiting their potential total land ownership, requiring service
contributions to neighboring counties and imposing a price parity
agreement. How this could be done through negotiation with a separate party
remained totally unclear. The governor's office also maintained that the
deal with the Wisconsin tribes removed the state from the suit because they
had agreed to assume liability for the New York Oneida claims. This
statement also appeared to ignore the legal situation, since it was an
action by the U.S. Justice Department that brought the state into the suit.

In the intricate history of the Oneida suit, the New York Oneidas announced
their own proposed settlement in February 2002, but it appeared to founder
in closed-door negotiations and was abandoned when the Wisconsin Oneida
pressed ahead with a series of individual suits against Central New York
land owners. One of their suits named an entity that turned out to be an
Oneida Indian Nation holding company for its tribal headquarters.

The second Wisconsin tribe, the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohicans, has
not even been accepted as a formal party to the Oneida suit, even though it
is asserting rights to a tract south of Oneida, N.Y., where it settled
briefly in the early 19th century after being expelled from its original
reservation in West Stockbridge, Mass.

The St. Regis Mohawks have remained somewhat aloof from the present fray,
pursuing their own land settlement and working on a casino development that
is by far the most advanced of the Catskills projects. In a statement
issued Dec. 9, the tribal council urged Pataki to follow the same
regulatory path it had already traveled and asked for continued state and
tribal cooperation. The tribe and Caesar's Entertainment have already
invested $42 million in the purchase of the former Kutsher's Resort,
architectural plans and legal fees, although the tribe is liable for only
$15 million of the total. Caesar's has been purchased by Harrah's, although
the merger of the two gaming giants is awaiting some approvals.

On Nov. 27, members of the St. Regis tribe on the U.S. side approved a land
settlement that in effect doubled the size of their reservation. The vote
was 782 for and 387 against. The Mohawk Council of Akwesasne on the
Canadian side approved the deal by 300 to 200. Although the two
reservations abide by majority votes, agreement from the traditional Mohawk
Nation Council of Chiefs requires a unanimous consensus.