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Seneca compact stalls, other Iroquois nations work on deals with states

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ALBANY, N. Y. - Casino deals for more of the Iroquois nations may be in the offing as Republican New York Gov. George Pataki struggles to get his Seneca gaming agreement through the Democratic-controlled State Assembly.

The St. Regis Mohawks and the Cayugas are reported to have ongoing talks with the state, and other tribes indicate they are exploring their options.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is hinting he will hold up legislation approving the Seneca plan until other tribal compacts are on the table. A spokesman for the speaker told ICT, "He thinks they should all be considered as a whole."

Silver is stalling a Senate-passed bill approving the outlines of Gov. Pataki's agreement with the Seneca Nation of Indians. A memorandum of understanding announced with great fanfare on June 20 would locate Las Vegas-style Seneca casinos in both Niagara Falls and Buffalo, the two largest and most economically depressed cities in western New York.

The deal would also give the Senecas exclusive rights to run coin-operated slot machines in western New York, with exception only for two other tribes. Apparently modeled on Connecticut's pact with its two tribal casinos, the deal would give New York state as much as a 25 percent cut of slot machine revenues.

Slots are outlawed at existing tribal casinos in the state, the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino in Hogansburg and the Oneida Nation's Turning Stone Casino Resort in Verona. Rowena General, spokeswoman for the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council, said permission for the machines is an issue in the tribe's two sets of talks with the state.

In the first, she said, the Mohawks sought a new compact for the so-far unprofitable Hogansburg casino near the Canadian border, to replace one that expired in May 2000. "We have been negotiating with New York state concerning an amendment to the current compact for well over a year," she said.

On the second track, the tribe is trying to work out a state memorandum of agreement for a major casino proposed for the Catskill resort area just north of New York City. General said the talks had been going on "for quite some time" before the sudden announcement of the Seneca memorandum. Slot machines were discussed in both talks, she said, "but nobody ever agreed to them."

The Mohawks now hope pressure from Speaker Silver will help close the deal. "The Sullivan County (Catskills) casino has received a lot of political support," General said. "Sheldon Silver is one of its big supporters.

"He's said the Mohawks should be first in line for any state approval."

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Gov. Pataki recently told reporters he was pressing talks with one or more tribes for Sullivan County casinos. "I certainly have supported having a casino, or two casinos, in the Catskills," he said, "and we will continue to negotiate and try to reach an agreement, but I just don't think it's accurate to say that we're very close to an agreement."

He said tribal negotiations were "extremely difficult," but added they could move quickly if the Assembly approved his Seneca deal. Lobbing the issue back to Speaker Silver, he said, "That sends a message of good faith to the other Indian nations that we're serious."

The Catskills location is a tangle legally, but a potential El Dorado is drawing the interest of at least two other tribes. The St. Regis Mohawks broke a previous agreement with a local group called Catskill Development Group to go with their current partners Park Place Entertainment, the world's largest gaming company. The new Mohawk plans call for a major development on the site of Kutsher's resort, once one of the mainstays of the Catskill "Borscht Belt."

Catskill Development, which owns the decaying Monticello Raceway and once had federal approval for a casino there, sued Park Place in U.S. District Court in White Plains, N.Y., for $6.3 billion in damages. It charges its rival with interference and conspiracy for wooing away the Mohawks. At the end of July, the federal judge ruled that the land deal between Catskill and the Mohawks was valid.

Although each side differed about the impact of the ruling, Catskill said it would be allowed to seek other tribes as partners, which it has been doing. Last summer, it reportedly was dealing with the Cayuga Nation. More recently it met with the Stockbridge Munsee Band of Mohicans of Wisconsin, whose ancestral lands lie along New York's Hudson River and the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts.

The Stockbridge Munsee Band, forced to relocate to the west in the early 1800s, is pursuing several land claims in upstate New York. Reportedly it also has plans for a casino in Bridgeville, N.Y., overlooking the Neversink River. It already operates the North Star Casino in Bowler, Wis. Tribal Chairman Robert Chicks has said, "We have had a long-standing interest in our tribe in establishing our presence in New York."

In the interim, two other Iroquois tribes in western New York are keeping close counsel. The Tonawanda Band of Senecas is a separate entity from the Seneca Nation, with its own reservation northeast of Buffalo. By the terms of the Seneca Nation memorandum, the Tonawandas conceivably could establish their own casino with slots, if located more than 25 miles from the Buffalo or Niagara Falls gaming halls.

Darwin Hill, clerk of the Tonawanda Tribal Council, said there had been discussion about the impact, but "no way we can let anything out for publication at this time."

"We're not prepared to make a comment at this time," he said.

The other Iroquois confederacy tribe near Buffalo, the Tuscarora Nation of New York, could not be reached for comment.