New York tribe pushes Interior to act on casino land

Indianz.Com Casino Stalker
Tracking casino proposals across Indian Country.
Ed. Note: An earlier version of this posting incorrectly stated the distance between the proposed casino and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe's reservation at Akwesasne. The gaming site is more than 300 miles away, not 600 miles away.

The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe of New York sued the Bush administration on Wednesday in hopes of winning final approval for an off-reservation casino.

The tribe has been seeking to build a gaming facility in the Catskills for several years. The site, while more than 300 miles from the reservation, is within driving distance of New York City.

The project has the support of the governor and the local community but the tribe's land-into-trust application has not been approved by the Interior Department despite being completed in February. A decision would finally enable the tribe to start work on the $600 million casino.

According to the tribe, the delay can be traced to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne. When he was governor of Idaho, he opposed off-reservation gaming and the Interior has not approved any such projects since he came on board in May 2006.

"It is unfortunate that we have to file a lawsuit to compel the Secretary to do his job, and it is unacceptable that our completed application has been pending at the Department for nearly nine months," said Mohawk Chief Lorraine M. White.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs has taken action to approve the environmental review for the casino. But that's only one part of the lengthy process the tribe must follow under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and other federal laws.

Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) concurred with the BIA's action under a provision in IGRA that requires a state governor to approve off-reservation casinos. Only three tribes have successfully completed this "two-part determination" process since the passage of IGRA in 1988.

The land-into-trust application, on the other hand, doesn't require state approval under the Indian Reorganization Act. But Kempthorne has interfered with the process, according to the tribe's lawsuit, which was filed in federal court in Washington, D.C.

"The Secretary needs to put aside his personal objections and recognize that New York is not Idaho, and that he is no longer a state governor, but a cabinet appointed official charged with implementing federal law," Chief James Ransom said.

Alarms were raised about Kempthorne's views in December 2006, when associate deputy secretary Jim Cason sent a letter to Mohawk leaders that appeared to encourage them to focus their gaming efforts on the reservation. The letter cited Congressional proposals to limit off-reservation gaming -- despite the failure of a bill to do just that in the 109th Congress.

Comparable legislation has not been introduced in the 110th Congress, whose Democratic leaders say other Indian issues, such as health care, housing and education, take priority over gaming.

Cason followed up on the letter with a speech at the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET) conference earlier this year. The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe belongs to USET, which holds its "Impact Week" meeting in suburban Washington, D.C., every winter.

"We're in the process of trying to reconcile his views as governor and his activities as governor with his role as secretary," Cason said on February 14.

After that conference, Cason told Indian law practitioners at another conference that the Bush administration is placing more land in trust. He spoke of it in the context of trust asset management, not gaming, but his concerns highlighted fears of an unofficial moratorium on land-into-trust applications.

Assistant secretary Carl Artman, who took control of the BIA in April, denies talk of a moratorium. He has said one of his top priorities is to reduce the land-into-trust backlog, though the exact number of pending applications -- both for gaming and non-gaming purposes -- are hard to obtain.

The Mohawk lawsuit asks the federal court to compel Kempthorne to make a decision on the land-into-trust application for 29 acres. The tribe hopes for action within 30 days.

New York Announcement:
STATE AUTHORIZES CATSKILL CASINO (February 19, 2007)

Interior Letter:
Jim Cason to St. Regis Mohawk Tribe (December 21, 2006)

Relevant Links:
St. Regis Mohawk Tribe - http://srmt-nsn.gov

Related Stories:
BIA still having trouble accounting for land-into-trust (10/5)
Cason explains misgivings on land-into-trust (4/20)
Artman jumps into job as new head of BIA (4/12)
Artman highlights priorities as head of BIA (4/5)
Leadership changes at BIA under Artman (4/2)
New York governor approves off-reservation casino (2/20)
Off-reservation gaming concerns at Interior (2/16)
BIA continues work on gaming land regulation (12/04)