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St. Regis Land Rights Lawsuit Nears Settlement

The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe has entered into an agreement with the State of New York & St. Lawrence County settling a decades old land rights lawsuit.

The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe has entered into an agreement with the State of New York and St. Lawrence County that would settle a decades old land rights lawsuit, clarify jurisdictional matters, and finalize the resolution of a dispute over gaming revenues in the tribe’s exclusivity zone. But a final settlement cannot be enacted without support and sign-on from Franklin County.

On May 28, St. Regis Mohawk Tribe (SRMT) chiefs and leaders from New York state and St. Lawrence County signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that will allow the tribe to buy 4,800 acres of identified aboriginal lands from willing sellers and restore the acres to the reservation.

St. Lawrence County will not lose any revenue from the deal; instead, it will profit. New York State will pay the county property taxes for any lands the tribe buys back. St. Lawrence County will also receive one-time payments of $2 million and $1.5 million from the state and the tribe, respectively, and annual payments of $4 million from New York State to be paid in perpetuity. The county could use the unrestricted funds as it sees fit.

“This is a step towards the final settlement which would resolve the [land rights] lawsuit,” the SRMT chiefs told ICTMN. The SRMT’s land rights claim includes an area of approximately six square miles guaranteed as Mohawk territory in the 1796 Treaty with the Seven Nations. In November 2012, the federal government intervened in the case on the tribe’s side.

RELATED: Federal Government Supports Mohawk Land Claim

The MOU also ends an old dispute over gaming revenues by finalizing payments to the local communities. The tribe discontinued slot revenue-sharing payments to New York in late 2010, maintaining that the state had violated the tribe’s gaming exclusivity zone by allowing the installation and operation of slot machines at the Ganienkeh Territorial Bingo, which is located in Clinton County about an hour away from Akwesasne, the Mohawk territory. The tribe and state reached an agreement last year, ending the dispute. The payments outlined in the MOU are in addition to the local share of casino revenues generated under the tribal-state gaming compact. Under the existing distribution formula, the estimated annual payments include approximately $1.45 million for St. Lawrence County and $725,000 each for the Towns of Brasher and Massena.

RELATED: St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, New York State Agreement Ends Exclusivity Dispute

The SRMT will also receive annual payments from the New York Power Authority (NYPA) of $2 million for 35 years and up to nine megawatts of power and energy at NYPA's lowest rate to meet the needs of the reservation. In addition, enrolled tribal members who qualify for admission to any state university of New York (SUNY) institution of higher learning will receive free tuition and fees. The agreement also clarifies matters related to jurisdiction and building codes.

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The MOU is supported by the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne and the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs.

The SRMT chiefs and Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued separate press releases.

"Our tribe and our people have worked toward this agreement for 32 years," said Chief Beverly Cook of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Council. "Our Council is carrying the work from our past leaders forward; we've built on each other's efforts, and we remain committed to a negotiated settlement that benefits our Mohawk people and our neighbors."

The MOU ends decades of a stalemate between the state and the Mohawks, Cuomo said. “We can now look forward to years of mutual respect and cooperation. It is only through true partnership and a willingness to move forward for the good of all parties that such success is achieved. I congratulate and thank the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe and our partners in county and local government for working together to make today’s agreement a reality.”

Chief Paul O. Thompson focused his remarks on the agreement’s educational benefits. "This is a historic time for our Mohawk people, which has been born of the hard work, vision and dedication of many of our leaders over several years," Thompson said. "The terms to which we agree today not only repair our past by allowing our tribe to recover our lands, but they also provide opportunities for our future generations through education. As tribal leaders, that is our commitment and responsibility – to ensure that our future generations have the opportunities they need, and that the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe needs, to succeed and flourish."

It is not clear if Franklin County was offered the same deal as St. Lawrence County. The SRMT has also been working with the neighboring Franklin County to resolve boundary matters. A final settlement cannot be enacted without Franklin County signing on, followed by local, state and Congressional approval.

 "We are proud to stand here with our neighbors from St. Lawrence County and we hope that our friends from Franklin County will also come to the table," Chief Ron LaFrance of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Council said. "The settlement of our land matters will benefit our entire region, just as the benefits of our tribe's economic expansion have reached far into our neighboring communities."

The SRMT employs more than 1,600 people at its various enterprises, including the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino, with an annual payroll of $47 million. More than 65 percent of the tribe's employees live in Franklin County and 33 percent live in St. Lawrence County. In addition, the tribe has worked with 244 vendors from Franklin County and 281 vendors from St. Lawrence County, thereby supporting hundreds of local jobs.

The Akwesasne Mohawk Casino Resort attracts more than 1.3 million people to the region each year, and has generated more than $86 million in exclusivity payments to New York State since 2005.