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St. Regis Mohawks to appeal denied land into trust application

AKWESASNE, N.Y. - A day after the BIA;s announcement of new guidelines for taking off-reservation land into trust for gaming purposes, the federal government rejected the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe's nine-year-old trust application for a casino site in the Catskill Mountains on which the tribe plans to build a $600 million casino resort.

Citing ''commutability'' as a new standard for denying off-reservation land into trust for gaming - even though it does not appear anywhere in the federal regulations - the Interior Department told the tribe that the rejection was essentially out of concern for the well-being of ''reservation life.''

The St. Regis chiefs received a letter Jan. 4 from Interior's Associate Deputy Secretary James Cason, denying the tribe's application to take approximately 30 acres of land into trust in Monticello. The site is within driving distance of New York City - a huge urban population from which the tribe hopes to draw customers. The facility is expected to generate around 3,000 permanent jobs in an area of the state that is in need of economic development.

Cason wrote on behalf of Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne. The Interior secretary has the discretionary authority by statute to take off-reservation land into trust for a tribe.

Cason said that the 350-mile distance between the planned casino resort and the Mohawk reservation was too far because it was not ''commutable.'' Tribal members would not be able to work at the casino if they wanted to stay on the reservation or they would be forced to move away from the reservation if they wanted to take advantage of the economic opportunities the casino would offer.

''In either case, negative impacts on reservation life could be considerable,'' he wrote.

''Stunned and incredulous, the tribe is now asking, according to whom?'' tribal chiefs Lorraine White, Barbara A. Lazore and James W. Ransom said in a press release.

They promised to appeal the decision.

''It doesn't end here for us. We are energized to take this to court,'' White said. The tribe was planning to file an Administrative Procedures Appeal within days in federal district court against Kempthorne for acting in a ''capricious and arbitrary'' manner in issuing the denial.

It will be the second lawsuit the tribe has filed against Kempthorne in the past few months. On Oct. 31, the tribe asked the court to compel Kempthorne to act within 30 days on their application, a deadline that was extended in response to Interior's request. The application was originally filed on Dec. 9, 1998.

In addition, the St. Regis Mohawks will be teaming up with other tribes to call for an oversight hearing by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and the House Resources Committee on the ''injustices'' occurring at Interior, White said.

Interior rejected land into trust applications from 10 other tribes on Jan. 4, including an application from the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohicans, which wants to build a casino in Bridgeville, more than 1,000 miles away from its Wisconsin reservation.

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The language of the rejection ''smacks of what [we] thought was a long-gone paternalist, racist approach to Indians,'' the tribal chiefs said.

''As far as we can tell, this decision is 100 percent politics. This decision defies all reason and is the product of a man and an administration that cannot stomach the idea of Native American success and financial independence. The clear message is that Indians belong on reservations and should be content to receive handouts and commodity cheese from the federal government,'' White said.

The Monticello casino proposal received key approvals from Interior in April 2000 in a 16-page document detailing its findings that the proposal would be in the tribe's interest, and again in December 2006, when Cason issued a Finding of No Significant Impact on the environment.

''The proposed project will improve socioeconomic conditions for both the Tribe and Sullivan County. The proposed project will create hundreds of jobs for the Tribe and local communities,'' Cason wrote then.

George Skibine, the BIA's director of the Office of Indian Gaming Management, also recommended approval on the tribe's trust application, said Mohawk spokesman Leslie Logan.

''Skibine stated he had recommended an approval on the tribe's trust application ... to the tribe and its legal partners,'' Logan told Indian Country Today.

Skibine could not be reached for comment by press time.

A day before the Mohawks' application was denied, BIA Assistant Secretary Indian Affairs Carl Artman distributed a memo to regional directors on the subject of ''guidance on taking off-reservation land into trust for gaming purposes.'' The memo cited part of a federal statute governing that says the secretary must give ''greater scrutiny'' to the anticipated benefits from the trust lands and ''greater weight'' to state and local government concerns about potential impacts of the project as the distance between a reservation and site increase.

Although the memo notes that the statute ''does not elaborate further on how or why the Department is to give 'greater scrutiny' or 'greater weight' as the distance increases,'' nevertheless, it claims that the reason is that ''as a general principle, the farther the economic enterprise - in this case, a gaming facility - is from the reservation, the greater the potential for significant negative consequences on reservation life.''

''There is no legal basis for this decision,'' Lazore said.

The Monticello proposal has been enthusiastically approved by both the area's federal representatives and by local and state officials, including Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who executed a tribal-state compact for the project last February.

Kempthorne, a former Republican governor of Idaho, is on record as opposing off-reservation casinos.

The dichotomy between Kempthorne's position as governor and his duties as Interior secretary has been acknowledged by Interior. Speaking at a United South and Eastern Tribes meeting last year, Cason said the department was ''in the process of trying to reconcile his [Kempthorne's] views as governor and his activities as governor with his role as secretary.''