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National
Pataki land claim bill leaves out out-of-state tribes


Only one tribe would be allowed to open an off-reservation casino in the Catskills region of New York under legislation submitted by Gov. George Pataki (R) on Thursday.

Pataki called the bill an "historic settlement" that would resolve the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe's land claim. The tribe would receive land, more than $100 million and the right to a Catskills casino in exchange for dropping its long-running lawsuit.

"The Mohawk land claim settlement would effectively end decades of litigation in a fair and comprehensive manner that protects the interests of local governments, landowners and taxpayers," Pataki said in a statement.

Left out of the plan were deals to end the land claims of several other tribes. The Cayuga Nation of New York, the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma, the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin and the Stockbridge Munsee Band of Mohicans from Wisconsin are willing to drop their lawsuits for off-reservation casinos in the Catskills. Pataki agreed, and asked the state to authorize five casinos, up from three approved in October 2001.

But the settlements fell apart after the U.S. Supreme Court on March 29 issued a decision that seemed to question whether tribes can reclaim rights to ancestral lands that fell out of their possession due to illegal takings by the state. The ruling came in a case involving the Oneida Nation of New York, which also has expressed interest in a Catskills casino, but state and local officials are trying to extend it to other tribes.

The courts are still sorting out the matter and rulings that will affect the rights the Cayuga Nation and the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe are pending. Meanwhile, a battle is brewing over the Oneida Nation's refusal to pay tax bills for land that local officials say is not Indian Country.

Yet Pataki yesterday said he was still hopeful that the 250,000-acre Oneida claim and the 64,000-acre Cayuga claim could be resolved "so that we can protect landowners in Central New York and avoid further costly and disruptive litigation." The Oneida Nation has been open to a settlement -- as long as out-of-state tribes are not allowed to assert sovereignty in New York.

The out-of-state issue has been a divisive one. The Oneida Nation came to a deal in 2002 with Pataki that excluded their Wisconsin cousins. Then the Wisconsin tribes settled in 2004 without including the Oneidas.

The New York tribes have taken a strong stance against allowing out-of-state tribes to return. The United South and Eastern Tribes (USET), which represents 24 tribes, has passed resolutions against the so-called "reservation shopping" efforts.

The debate is avoided by Pataki's new legislation because the bill is limited to the Akwesasne Mohawks in upstate New York. Even though the Catskills region is hundreds of miles from the Mohawk reservation, the tribe has previously won federal approval to build a casino there.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs is still moving forward with the tribe's second off-reservation acquisition, which was submitted because the tribe dumped its first gaming partner. The Cayuga Nation's application for Catskills land is also pending and, despite being left out of the bill, the tribe's gaming partner expressed hope yesterday that it would be included in a future deal.

Less certain are the deals for the out-of-state tribes whose claims of governmental rights in New York need to be validated in order to open a casino under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. So far, neither the BIA nor the National Indian Gaming Commission have recognized a tribe's right to engage in gaming in another state.

The Interior Department, however, has recognized that tribes can have governmental rights in another state. The BIA has taken land into trust in Kansas for the Wyandotte Nation in Oklahoma although the NIGC won't allow gaming there.

As for the Mohawks, Pataki's bill first needs approval by the state Legislature. It would then need to be sent to the U.S. Congress for approval.

Relevant Documents:
Akwesasne Mohawk Land Claim Announcement (Gov. Pataki June 9, 2005)

Oneida Nation Decision:
Syllabus | Opinion [Ginsburg] | Concurrence [Souter] | Dissent [Stevens]