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Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to Indian Country Today

As a relatively new federally recognized tribe, the Shinnecock Indian Nation has had to fight for every bit of advancement.

The tribe is based in Southampton, Long Island, one of the most expensive parcels of oceanfront land in New York state. It was granted recognition in 2010 and has had only an annual powwow, tobacco stands, oyster farms and recent highway billboard ads for revenue. The powwow was canceled this fall for the first time in 73 years because of the pandemic.

Now, the Shinnecock Nation has taken a giant step, partnering with tribal gaming giant Seminole Hard Rock Entertainment on a proposed resort-casino. 

Since its recognition, the tribe has openly searched for sites on Long Island for a gaming venue, from neighboring Hampton Bays all the way into Queens.

The Shinnecock Nation occupies 900 acres in Southampton and 97 acres in the nearby Hampton Bays neighborhood. But a sprawling resort-casino needs space for additional venues, roadways and parking, something that could be found in nearby Riverhead or Calverton, where multiple shopping malls have closed. 

For a time, it partnered with Gateway Casino Resorts to develop a 97-acre Westwoods property in Hampton Bays. But the environmental restrictions on the location became an issue, and that partnership ended.

Shinnecock Indian Nation seal (Courtesy of the Shinnecock Indian Nation)

The new partnership with the Seminole to develop a “world-class entertainment destination” includes the tribes and developer Tri-State Partners, headed up by billionaire Jack Morris who has developed several casinos. 

Details on a specific location have not yet been released, and the Shinnecock Nation still needs to negotiate a compact with New York. The state is conducting an economic feasibility study to determine if it will award new licenses downstate.

No decision will be made until that study has been completed and thoroughly reviewed, a National Indian Gaming Commission spokesman said.

The joint gaming venture will further the tribe’s “inherent sovereignty through economic growth and development,” while creating hundreds of jobs and a revenue stream for the tribe and the state, Shinnecock Trustees told Long Island’s Newsday.

At just 1,587 members, including about 660 on the reservation, the small tribe has seen gaming as the pathway to advance its economic agenda. Its solar oyster hatchery has been a success, but outdoor advertising via a billboard with prime real estate along Highway 27, also known as Sunrise Highway, in Southampton caused a legal battle the tribe won. The Hamptons are actively against billboards, chain stores and over-development in their fragile beachfront environment.

Shinnecock Nation Vice President Lance Gumbs has said tribal economic development can be attained by filling a “plate with slices of economic development.” This way diverse businesses add up so the community won’t be dependent on any one source of income. Gumbs works towards intertribal business dealings to balance out tribal and privately owned businesses.

The Shinnecock Indian Nation’s announcement comes after the National Indian Gaming Commission approved its tribal gaming ordinance on July 17 by default, since the commission chairman did not take any actions to approve or disapprove it within the 90-day deadline. The commission outlines the structure, rules and objectives of the tribe’s gaming initiatives.

The tribe’s win means it can operate class II gaming, involving video terminals and bingo parlors, on tribal lands, and class III gaming, which involves full table gambling, on tribal land or land taken into trust on behalf of the tribe.

Under the existing tribal-state compacts in New York state, Indian casinos pay a tax of 25 percent of their gross gaming revenues from slots in exchange for the state honoring the exclusive multicounty regions in which they operate. Four non-tribally owned casino-resorts have opened in upstate New York since 2016, all of them in places not covered by tribal exclusivity agreements with the state.

Jake's 58 Hotel & Casino in Islandia and Aqueduct Raceway's Resorts World Casino in Queens have video slot machines and electronic table games, but full, class-III live table games have not yet been licensed or approved downstate.

The Seminole Hard Rock casinos around the world include restaurants, music venues, comedy clubs, retail stores, the Hard Rock Café and merchandise, hotels and spas. The newest resort, the Guitar Hotel in Hollywood, Florida, opened in October 2019 and cost over $1.5 billion.

“We ask the people of this great state to come forward and work with us to put away the ghosts of the past and a history marred with broken promises, theft and suffering,” the Shinnecock Tribal Council said in their statement. “In these troubling times everyone seeks economic growth and development. Together we can make a brighter future for the Shinnecock Nation and the citizens of New York.”

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Sandra Hale Schulman, Cherokee, has been writing about Native issues since 1994. She is an author of four books, has contributed to shows at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, The Queens Museum, Grammy Museum, and has produced three films on Native musicians.