By William Kates -- Associated Press
SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) - In February 2002, then-Gov. George Pataki traveled to upstate New York to surround himself with local officials and trumpet a $500 million land claim settlement with the Oneida Indian Nation.
Within weeks, the agreement unraveled, partly because no one bothered to include two other out-of-state Oneida tribes that were party to the land claim.
Recently, the Cayuga Indian Nation of New York and Gov. Eliot Spitzer quietly unveiled a proposed settlement of the Cayugas' claim to 64,000 acres of ancestral lands in the Finger Lakes - one that not only left out the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma, but would also press Congress to ban the out-of-state tribe from opening a casino in New York.
''There's a difference this time,'' said Cayuga attorney Dan French. ''When the courts threw out the Cayuga judgment and land claim, they also took away the Seneca-Cayugas' standing as a successor in interest,'' said French.
''There is no claim. You can't be a successor of interest to nothing,'' French said.
In 2001, the two tribes jointly won a $247.9 million federal court judgment based on a 1994 court ruling that the state had illegally purchased the land more than 200 years ago. In April 2005, that judgment was overturned by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City, which then dismissed the entire 25-year-old claim, saying the Cayugas had waited too long to reclaim their land.
The U.S. Supreme Court let the decision stand.
Seneca-Cayuga Chief Paul Spicer said the Oklahoma tribe will start legal action if Congress tries to block it from building a casino in New York. The 4,000-member tribe, which already operates a casino in Oklahoma, has proposed building a $400 million casino in Auburn, where city leaders have been receptive to the idea.
''Of course, we're going to file lawsuits. We're going to come out with both guns firing,'' Spicer said in mid-May.
The Oklahoma tribe is not the only group opposed to the settlement.
The anti-gaming wing of the New York Cayugas will work to derail the deal, said their attorney, Joseph Heath. Besides opposing gaming, Heath said his group was left out of the negotiations led by Clint Halftown, the Cayugas' federally recognized representative.
The Cayuga-Seneca Chapter of Upstate Citizens for Equality, a grass-roots opposition group, also objected, arguing that since the courts dismissed the land claim, there is nothing to settle.
UCE officials predicted the deal would fall apart just like tentative accords the Pataki administration struck with the two Cayuga tribes in 2004 that would have given each tribe casinos in the Catskills.
Under the proposed settlement, the New York Cayugas would be allowed to open a casino anywhere in New York, but only in a community where it was wanted. The state would receive about $120 million from casino revenues. The local community would also get a cut.
No location has been selected, although a casino could help rekindle the sluggish central New York economy. Another possibility is the Catskills region, where the St. Regis Mohawk Nation is building a $600 million casino in Monticello.
The Cayugas would cap the amount of land they could have designated as ''restricted-fee'' at 10,000 acres - less than a sixth of their land claim.
Of those 10,000 acres, two-thirds would be located in Cayuga County, with the other third in Seneca County. The land would have to be in three or fewer parcels and it could amount to no more than 20 percent of the territory in any one municipality.
''This appears to be about the best deal we can get. There are many positives for the counties and many protections,'' said Seneca County Attorney Steve Getman.
County lawmakers said they expected the agreement would be approved at meetings in June. The deal also requires approval by the state and federal governments.
Following the earlier legal setbacks, the Cayugas applied to have 180 acres they own placed into federal trust, which would make them sovereign and exempt from state and local laws and taxes. A decision by the BIA is not expected until late this year or early next year.
By opting to have its property designated as restricted-fee land, the tribe can bypass that lengthy process, French said. However, until a final accord is reached, the tribe will continue pursuing its federal trust application, he said.
Restricted-fee status would give legal title of the land to the tribe - unlike the title being held in trust by the federal government - but the Cayugas could not sell the land without government permission. Restricted-fee lands are also sovereign and tax-free.
The 600-member New York tribe owns two combination gas station/convenience stores and two small gaming halls that are currently closed.