Seneca-Cayuga plan to build bingo hall, despite skepticism from BIA head


AUBURN, N.Y. ? The BIA has weighed in on the side of New York state in a dispute over plans by the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma to build a high-stakes bingo hall in the upstate Finger Lakes region.

But tribal officials say the BIA letter doesn't interfere with their plans and won't stop them from building the gaming facility.

Acting Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Aurene Martin wrote Jan. 9 that the BIA did not recognize the tribe as having "any political authority over any lands in New York State." Without that authority, she wrote, a Class II bingo hall would have to jump through several hoops laid out in the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 (IGRA). The tribe would need to have land taken into trust by the U. S. and have the Secretary of Interior determine that gaming would be in its best interests. Furthermore, the New York state governor would have to concur, Martin wrote.

Her letter responded to an inquiry that U.S. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R. -N.Y., sent to her predecessor Neal McCaleb on Dec. 10. Boehlert represents the district that includes Central New York's only Indian casino, Turning Stone Casino Resort owned by the Oneida Indian Nation. Boehlert opposed the Seneca-Cayuga plans and released Martin's reply, praising it as "a well reasoned response."

"More importantly," he said in a press release, "this empowers our communities to have a say in whether or not gaming is conducted in Cayuga County."

Cayuga County Legislature chairman Raymond Lockwood said Martin's letter, "puts the county and towns in a position to have a say in what can happen on that land."

Tribal officials say the lawmakers' interpretation of Martin's letter is wrong.

"At this point, there is no change in our plans," former Seneca-Cayuga chief Jerry Dilliner said.

Tribal lawyer Larry Leventhal of Minneapolis, Minn., said in buying the land, the tribe acquired tribal title and fee title to it. The tribe has also a valid gaming ordinance for its bingo hall in Oklahoma that covers the Cayuga County project, he said.

"The statements in this letter do not cause any problems with what the tribe has proposed. We still want to work with local officials to make this project work for the benefit of all," Leventhal said.

In a statement, the Seneca-Cayuga tribe said that U. S. District Court decisions have already "determined that our Tribe together with the Cayuga Indian Nation has possessed Treaty title since the 18th century as to the lands which we claimed."

The statement said that Martin's analysis applied to land acquired after passage of IGRA on Oct. 17, 1988. "It is clear, however, that our Indian lands in New York were acquired long before 1988."

The tribe plans to build the bingo hall on 229 acres of land it recently bought in Aurelius and Montezuma near the eastern shore of Cayuga Lake, 30 miles west of Syracuse.