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New York tribe sues over off-reservation gaming rejection

Update: The St. Croix Band of Lake Superior Chippewa from Wisconsin has amended its previously filed land-into-trust lawsuit to challenge the Bush administration policy. The tribe is still waiting for a decision on its off-reservation casino.

Also, assistant secretary Carl Artman is scheduled to speak with tribal leaders in Washington, D.C., on January 22. The meeting is being arranged by the National Indian Gaming Association.

The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe of New York sued the Bush administration on Thursday in hopes of reviving its off-reservation casino bid and overturning a policy that has sent shockwaves through Indian Country.

The Mohawks were among 11 tribes that were rejected by the Bureau of Indian Affairs last week. A new policy issued by assistant secretary Carl Artman makes it nearly impossible to open casinos hundreds of miles from existing reservations.

The tribe wants to build a casino in the Catskills, more than 300 miles from the Akwesasne Reservation. In the eyes of the BIA, that's too far for tribal members to commute for jobs.

But as tribal leaders pointed out, Mohawks have been traveling even farther to seek employment. For more than a century, tribal members have worked on every major construction project in New York City -- including the World Trade Center -- despite being nearly 400 miles from the reservation.

"Commuting hundreds of miles for work and livelihood is an ongoing and ingrained part of Mohawk life where families, permanent residences and community ties remain unbroken," the tribe said yesterday in announcing the lawsuit.

The suit, filed in federal court in New York, accuses the administration of failing to notify Indian Country about the new policy. Tribes were not consulted or given a chance to respond to the stricter land-into-trust requirements, tribal leaders said.

"We will join force with Indian Country to put the agency's feet to the fire on this issue," said Chief Barbara Lazore. "What we are asking for is a fair shake from a federal agency that is charged with and entrusted with trust responsibility for tribes," added Chief James W. Ransom.

In addition to their own litigation, Mohawk leaders are talking with other tribes about potential court actions. The tribe is also calling on Congress to hold hearings to address the policy -- House and Senate leaders have long been concerned about land-into-trust and off-reservation gaming.

Artman spoke publicly about the development of the policy at the Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas last November. There, he was challenged by Mohawk Chief Lorraine White to explain why off-reservation casino proposals were being held up.

In a follow-up interview after the conference, Artman told Indianz.Com that it would be "dangerous" to make decisions on off-reservation casinos without a new policy. He also stated that tribes -- not even those with land-into-trust applications -- would not be consulted about the pending changes.

The BIA normally consults tribes before writing new regulations or making changes to existing ones. At G2E, however, Artman told attendees it was too late in the administration to engage in a rule-making process.

As a result, the policy was issued in the form of "guidance" to BIA's regional directors and the Office of Indian Gaming in Washington, D.C. The move avoided the need to rewrite the existing land-into-trust regulations under 25 CFR Part 151.

Among other factors, Artman instructed BIA officials to consider whether a proposed off-reservation casino is within a "daily commutable distance" from a reservation. "A commutable distance is considered to be the distance a reservation resident could reasonably commute on a regular basis to work at a tribal gaming facility located off-reservation," the guidance states.

The six-page document does not define terms like "reasonably" or "regular basis" or give guidance on mileage. But the BIA last Friday rejected off-reservation casinos as far as 1,400 miles from an existing reservation and as close as 115 miles.

The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe previously filed a lawsuit in order to force a decision on its completed application. The tribe yesterday asked a federal judge in Washington, D.C., to dismiss the case, to which the Bush administration had not yet filed a reply.

Off-Reservation Gaming Policy:
Guidance on taking off-reservation land into trust for gaming purposes (January 3, 2008)

BIA Letters:
Big Lagoon Rancheria | Chemehuevi Tribe | Hannahville Indian Community | Jemez Pueblo | Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa | Los Coyotes Band of Cahuilla and Cupeño Indians | Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians | St. Regis Mohawk Tribe | Stockbridge Munsee Band of Mohican Indians | Seneca-Cayuga Tribe | United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians | Other January 4 Tribes

Relevant Links:
St. Regis Mohawk Tribe -
Bureau of Indian Affairs -