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Three Feathers Casino Verdict a Victory for All Indians

Can Indians still make decisions for themselves on their own homeland? That question was recently deliberated in a case involving four men from the Akwesasne Reserve.

The Three Feathers Casino federal trial has now concluded. Members of the Men’s Council of Akwesasne were indicted in late 2012 by a federal grand jury on charges of operating a casino and possessing gambling devices. A jury trial ensued in October 2013 in the Northern District Court of New York.

On Thursday, December 12, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty. The verdict affected two members of the men’s council. The jury also found Joseph Hight, a Class II gaming vendor from Georgia, not guilty. Hight was a gaming equipment vendor who had supplied electronic bingo equipment to the Three Feathers Casino.

A third member of the Men’s Council remains at large, unaffected by the jury decision because he has not yet been served with notice of his criminal charges. A fifth defendant who withdrew from the recent trial for health reasons also may have to be prosecuted again.

As this trial concluded, the relevant issue pertaining to this legal decision remains. Can Indians still make decisions for themselves on their own homeland?

The jury seemed to be profoundly affected by the cross-examination of the prosecution witnesses, according to observers. Facial expressions were seen at times on their faces. Some of the witnesses were granted criminal prosecution immunity in exchange for their testimony. According to courtroom onlookers, the prosecution team was extremely personal in their statements against the traditional Longhouse culture in Akwesasne. It appeared to the observers that the U.S. attorneys may have oversold their portion of the proceedings. Like using a sledge hammer to kill a fly.

It has been said that the human memory on most subjects rarely exceeds six months. Possibly a refresher course is needed for federal prosecutors. Hello. Akwesasne is an international battleground on disputed land and the people that live there are very strong minded and for the most culturally intact.

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This is relevant due to the recurring pattern of government unrest in Akwesasne. There I said it. There still remain pockets of land in North America that pledge no allegiance to a flag or accept anything less than control of their own lives. This may be due to the fact that many Akwesasne families have lived here since prior to the American Revolution. However one wishes to describe the local population, the word feisty comes to mind most frequently. These are people who do not go quietly into the night or walk away easily from challenges to their existence. When these people come together here, they usually win.

Sure there are both elected tribal and band council governments coexisting within a diner table of each other in Akwesasne at lunch, near the local international bridge. But the presence of elected government here is not enough alone to impose the proclamations of such government on the people of Akwesasne. The silent majority of the residents of both of these governments know that if they do not go along with the council decisions, that no change will take place.

The Three Feathers Casino trial verdict showed that independent spirit extends even beyond the apparent borders of Akwesasne as an anomaly in the greater sphere of American politics.

With a minimal amount of time from witness testimony, likely less than an introductory college course would require, American citizens on the federal jury seemed to reach an understanding of the imbalance of power in Akwesasne. Based on this knowledge and understanding they made an informed decision.

The media coverage of the trial was limited. Indian Country Today Media Network (Owned by the Oneida Nation) was one of the only news outlets to devote any time at all to it. Still, the message will get out that justice was dealt in this case. The Americans on that jury understood that they were somehow involved with a different part of what they may have thought of as “America” before the testimony began.

The only Indians who really testified against these defendants as prosecution witnesses were tribal employees. A highly paid employee sadly admitted to stunned gallery onlookers, prior to his early testimony on behalf of the prosecution, that he was “just a boy” who was put on the stand to testify against the Men’s Council. The same tool admitted under defense cross-examination that he was unaware that his father, a retired community pillar, had been a business partner with the acquitted non-Native gaming equipment vendor / defendant in the past. He claimed to have no idea of that.

The verdict cannot offer complete relief. What it may say is any presumption that imposed, elected Tribal (re: BIA) governments have any actual control of the lives of Indians in Akwesasne is a pipe dream. This jury decision only confirmed that fact.

Charles Kader (Turtle Clan) was born in Erie, Pennsylvania to a World War II veteran. He attended Clarion University of Pennsylvania, earning degrees in Communication and Library Science, as well as Mercyhurst College where he earned a graduate degree in the Administration of Justice. He has worked across Indian country, from the Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Montana (where he married his wife) to the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, and now resides in Kanienkeh.