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Oklahoma tribe settles land claim for New York casino

In the first deal of its kind nationwide, the governor of New York has agreed to settle a land claim with an out-of-state tribe for a casino.

After flatly rejecting any sort of deal with the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma, Gov. George Pataki (R) on Friday reversed course on Friday an announced an end to one of the longest-running land claims in the United States. Pataki and Seneca-Cayuga Chief LeRoy Howard signed an agreement that would authorize a casino in the Catskills, just 90 minutes north of New York City.

"This agreement between the state and tribe represents the ending of an historic dispute between the state and tribe and the beginning of a new partnership to create jobs and economic growth for the Catskills region," Pataki said in a statement.

"The agreement allows us to move forward with plans to establish the first of three new casinos in the Catskills, which would create thousands of new jobs and provide a tremendous boost to the region's economy," Howard added.

The deal comes just a few months after Pataki announced a similar arrangement with the Cayuga Nation, based in New York. But those talks broke off in September after the New York Cayugas reportedly balked at the inclusion of their Oklahoma relatives.

With that hurdle out of the way, the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe now plans to give up its portion of a $247.9 million land claim settlement in exchange for gaming rights that would be limited to the Catskills, which is not within the land claim area. The tribe will contribute 25 percent of net revenues to the state, comply with local and state environmental laws and collect state and local sales taxes for any goods and services sold.

The settlement still needs approval by the New York Legislature, whose members in the past have been eager to see gaming in the Catskills. In the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, lawmakers quickly approved three casinos for the region but no tribe has opened a facility.

The U.S. Congress would also need to sign off on the deal, a potential roadblock. A bill that would settle a land claim for a casino in Michigan has been controversial, drawing opposition from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, certain lawmakers and other tribes even though the tribe involved is based in the state.

The Seneca-Cayugas are just one of more than a dozen tribes that are seeking casinos in states where they once had a historical presence. Tribes have laid claim to land in New York, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Illinois, Ohio and other states, saying they will settle for gaming rights.

Federal officials are concerned about the trend but admit they don't know how to handle it. They considered the possibility of adopting a blanket policy on the matter but decided against it, promising to rule on a case-by-case basis.

"Contrary to popular belief, tribes cannot simply buy a parcel of land anywhere and set up a gaming establishment," former BIA deputy Aurene Martin said at a hearing in July.

Added to the mix is a pending U.S. Supreme Court case that could alter the legal landscape. At issue is whether tribes can assert sovereignty on ancestral territory that is the subject of land claims. Federal law requires tribes to have authority over land where gaming occurs.

The Seneca-Cayuga Tribe and the Cayuga Nation jointly filed their claim against New York 25 years ago. They say 64,000 acres was wrongly taken from them through illegal state treaties and other state actions.

Two years ago, U.S. District Judge Neal P. McCurn agreed and awarded the tribes $247.9 million, a figure that includes interest, for their losses. The tribes and the state appealed, however, and a decision is pending before the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. The tribes say they are owed up to $1.7 billion while the state says the claim is invalid.

In the meantime, the Seneca-Cayugas sought to start a gaming establishment on land claim territory but were shut down by McCurn. However, in a key holding, he ruled that the tribe has a right to reassert its ties to a state its ancestors left more than a century ago.

The Cayuga Nation also started a gaming establishment on ancestral territory and got an even more positive ruling from another judge. The decision said the tribe was never "divested" of its ownership to the land in dispute.

The Seneca-Cayugas later sought a casino in Rochester, a plan that would end if the land claim settlement is approved. The Cayugas, as well as other New York-based tribes, have opposed the return of out-of-state tribes.

Gov. Pataki and Seneca-Cayuga Chief Howard said they hope to get state and federal legislation approved by September 1, 2005. The tribe is working with Empire Resorts, also partnered with the Cayuga Nation, to open the Catskills casino.

The Seneca-Cayuga Tribe and the Cayuga Nation are paying close attention to the Supreme Court case involving the Oneida Nation of New York. Two lower courts have ruled that land the tribe buys in its land claim area is Indian Country, free from state and local laws. Oral arguments are scheduled for January 11, 2005.

Court Decision:
Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma v. Aurelius (September 1, 2004)

Related Cases:
Cayuga Nation | Oneida Nation | Oneida Nation Dissent

Relevant Links:
Seneca-Cayuga Tribe -