Wanamaker: "Let the Games Begin"


As Indian gaming continues to expand, it seems that almost as many "games" are being played in courtrooms as on the gaming floors. In the case of the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe, arguments that concern a proposed Class II bingo hall in Upstate New York will now be properly heard in federal court.

On Aug. 12, the tribe filed a "notice of removal" asking that its dispute with the Town of Aurelius be heard in Federal court in Syracuse, N.Y. rather than at Cayuga County Court in Auburn. The tribe also stopped work on the project, which is still in the early stages of excavating and grading the land, until the case is decided. U.S. District Court Judge Neal P. McCurn is scheduled to hear the case on Sept. 8.

Excavation had progressed on Seneca-Cayuga land in defiance of two court orders; one was a stop-work order issued on July 30 by the town while the second was temporary restraining order to cease construction issued on Aug. 9 by state Supreme Court Judge Peter E. Corning.

Judge Corning issued his temporary restraining order in support of the town and Cayuga County. Sheriff's deputies reportedly attempted to serve the order on Aug. 9, but Seneca-Cayuga officials residing at the site were in Oklahoma for weekend, attending the tribe's annual Green Corn Festival.

Judge Corning was scheduled to rule on the town's request for a preliminary injunction to halt the project at an Aug. 13 hearing, which was cancelled due to the tribe's request for a hearing in Federal court.

Tribal officials have indicated that they would honor a stop-work order from a Federal judge.

The tribe plans to construct a $25-million high stakes bingo parlor on a 229-acre parcel of land at the corners of Routes 90 and 5-20, two main roads in this rural area near the northern end of Cayuga Lake. The Town of Aurelius, approximately 30 miles west of Syracuse and in which the site is located, on July 30 issued its stop-work order against the tribe for failure to get a building permit and for zoning violations.

Town and county officials believe that the tribe is subject to their jurisdiction and must abide by the same building codes and zoning laws as non-Indian residents. Late last year, Cayuga County rejected a no-strings-attached $15,000 gift from the tribe - representing the approximate property taxes on the tribe's land.

The tribe has filed suit in federal court against the town and county in federal court to prevent them blocking the bingo hall. The Seneca-Cayugas claim sovereignty over their land as it is situated within the 64,000-acre Cayuga land claim that horseshoes around the north end of Cayuga Lake. This, the tribe asserts, exempts it from local and state building and zoning ordinances.

In 2001, a federal judge ruled that New York state had illegally acquired Cayuga lands in the 1790s and jointly awarded $247.9 million to the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe and the Cayuga Indian Nation of New York. Both the award and ruling are currently under appeal.

The permanent bingo building is currently scheduled to open for business over Memorial Day weekend in 2004. In the meantime, the tribe plans to have a modular facility up and running by the end of September. This assumes, of course, that construction proceeds without additional delay or stoppage.

While protracted litigation is generally seen to benefit no one but lawyers, the proper venue for this important case is indeed Federal court. The issues raised - local and state jurisdiction over gaming and other activities on tribal lands - are of vital importance to both tribal economic development and to the surrounding non-Indian community.

Sovereignty sits at the center of the conflict, augmented by the fact that the Seneca-Cayuga tribe is federally recognized in Oklahoma, not in New York. To date, no Indian tribe has opened a gaming establishment in a state other than where it is recognized. In addition to the "usual" arguments over sovereignty, both the Seneca-Cayugas' out-of-state status and their inclusion in the Cayuga land claim add an interesting twist to this jurisdictional tug-of-war.

Judge McCurn's ruling should be closely watched throughout Indian country. Regardless of how he decides the case however, the losing side is certain to appeal.

Shinnecocks v. Southampton

In similar fashion at the other end of the state, the Shinnecock Indian Nation of eastern Long Island recently began to clear land for a 65,000-square-foot casino on its territory in Hampton Bays. Because its government predates local and state authorities, the tribe claims that laws promulgated by such bodies do not apply to it. The Town of Southampton says the Shinnecocks must obey town laws and regulations.

Certainly not an "out-of-state" tribe, the Shinnecocks' case is nonetheless complicated by the fact that they have only state and not federal recognition - their application for federal status has been pending at BIA. Like the Seneca-Cayugas, the Shinnecocks have agreed to cease construction until their case is heard in federal court.

Other than a few smoke shops, the Shinnecocks have little in the way of tribal businesses. They certainly must be frustrated with both the crawling pace of the BIA recognition process and the fact that they have minimal opportunity despite living in an area, "the Hamptons" that has become a summer retreat for millionaires and celebrities.

The tribe was successful in getting its case to the proper venue; time will tell how the issue is decided.