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NY governor endorses Shinnecock federal acknowledgment

ALBANY, N.Y. – Gov. David Paterson has written to the secretary of the Interior Department, expressing support for the Shinnecock Indian Nation’s federal acknowledgment, an unprecedented public gesture of tribal support from a state governor.

The Shinnecock Nation was among the first Indian nations in the country to file for federal acknowledgment in 1978 under what were then the BIAs newly established regulations. It was fourth on the list of petitioners waiting to be reviewed.

“To say federal recognition of the Shinnecock is long overdue would be an understatement,” Paterson wrote to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar Sept. 22. “It is my understanding that the Shinnecock has included in its petition over 40,000 pates of documentation, demonstrating the attributes of a federally-recognized Indian tribe, including evidence of self-government that dates back to 1641. In fact, throughout New York state history, the government has maintained a government-to-government relationship with the Shinnecock.”

The nation’s journey to federal acknowledgment has been strewn with lawsuits, controversy and delays.

In 2005, a federal judge bypassed the BIA recognition process and ruled that the state-recognized Shinnecock Indians are indeed a federal tribe, but the Interior Department refused to recognize the judge’s ruling despite a law saying tribes can be federally recognized by the BIA process, by Congress or by a federal judge. The nation sued Interior, and last May the parties reached a settlement requiring the BIA to issue a Proposed Finding on the tribe’s petition for federal recognition by Dec. 15.

“I’m hopeful that the Proposed Finding that will be issued this year will find the Shinnecock Indian Nation as a federally recognized Indian tribe,” Paterson said.

In addition to the Dec. 15 deadline for a Proposed Finding, the agreement cuts in half the comment period following the Proposed Finding from a maximum of 360 days to 180 days, though it could be as quick as 90 days. Overall, the agreement ensures that a final decision will be reached in 2010, possibly as early as June.

Shinnecock leaders welcomed Paterson’s endorsement, calling him “a man of principle.”

“New York state Gov. David A. Paterson is a true leader who has demonstrated that he understands the history of the Shinnecock people and our government-to-government relationship with New York state. Gov. Paterson also recognizes that in order for the Shinnecock Indian Nation to have a fair chance at economic opportunity and a better quality of life that the time has come for us to join the ranks of federally recognized tribes. As with other federal tribes, recognition can open a door for us leading to adequate housing, expanded health care, and economic parity for our people. We thank the governor and the state of New York for this support and pledge to work with the state in a spirit of cooperation,” Randy King, chairman of the nation’s three-person board of trustees, said.

The Shinnecock nation has around 1,300 members, more than 600 of whom live on its 1,200-acre reservation next to the Town of Southampton on the ritzy East End of Long Island, according to the nation’s Web site. The nation’s aboriginal territory stretched from what is known today as Easthampton west to Brookhaven.

In addition to federal funding for housing, health and education, federal acknowledgment would give the nation the right to open a casino under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

The Shinnecock could begin Class II gaming on its reservation, but the nation has faced local opposition from residents who worry that a casino would create a traffic nightmare in an already overburdened highway infrastructure. The nation is considering instead a full-scale – and much more profitable – Class III gaming operation elsewhere. The Aqueduct Race Track in Queens has been eyed as a potential site, but so far that plan has not moved forward.

In order to conduct gaming beyond its reservation, Shinnecock would likely have to purchase land and ask the Interior to take it into trust. That would require a legislative fix to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Carcieri ruling last February that the Interior secretary does not have the authority to take land into trust for tribes federally recognized after the Indian Reorganization Act passed in 1934.

On Sept. 24, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., introduced legislation in the Senate to amend the 1934 IRA to say the Interior secretary has the authority to take land into trust for all federally recognized tribes. There are indications that opposition to the bill is growing, however.

The Interior Department would also have to undo the Bush-era “commutability guidance memorandum” issued in January 2008 by former Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne. The memorandum cited “commutability” as a new standard for denying off-reservation trust applications for gaming purposes.

Last May, Paterson wrote to Salazar urging him to reverse the commutability guidance memorandum.

“During his tenure, Secretary Kempthorne took several actions that were not in the best interest of New York state and this specific policy prevented critical economic development that the legislature and governor’s office approved. I am confident Secretary Salazar will be more attuned to the needs of New York’s residents and our Indian nations,” Paterson said about his letter.