Doug George-Kanentiio: Late governor was no friend to Iroquois

Oneida Nation Representative Ray Halbritter presents the late former New York governor Mario Cuomo (D), 1932-2015, with the Two Row Wampum in 2013 to mark the 20th anniversary of the tribe's Class III gaming compact. Still image from YouTube

Whenever an individual passes into the spirit world it is our duty to extend our condolences to the family and friends of the departed. We do so for former New York State governor Mario Cuomo.

His passing provides us with an opportunity to review his tenure while governor which, sadly, was not a good one with regards to the Iroquois.

Mario Cuomo was once the Secretary of State for New York during a particularly dangerous time in our history. in 1974 a group of Mohawks had taken back an abandoned girl scouts camp near Eagle Bay, NY which they called Ganienkeh and for three years experienced high tensions and violence until Cuomo helped arrange its relocation to a state preserve west of Plattsburgh, NY.

Given his diplomatic skills during that time the Iroquois were optimistic the new governor sworn into office in 1983 would bring an end to two centuries of animosity and mistrust between the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and New York State.

This was not to be. The Iroquois believed that all US and State officials would abide by the terms of the federal constitution which clearly states that ratified treaties are the supreme law of the land. Since the Confederacy held the one and only legitimate treaty with the US (Canandaigua)it made legal sense that Cuomo, a lawyer who took an oath to uphold the Constitution, would acknowledge the Iroquois as having the right to self determination as independent governing entities.

Cuomo rejected this and began his first term by attempting to impose New York State taxes on fuel and tobacco sales on Native territory. He elected to ignore the Confederacy entirely when efforts were made to negotiate an equitable resolution of this contentious issue which led to a stalemate in the land claims process and thereby initiated years of needless litigation.

Cuomo adopted the policy of using casino gambling compacts to create divisions within the Confederacy. In the spring of 1993 he secretly negotiated a gambling contract with the Oneida Nation of New York, a deal as yet to be reviewed or endorsed by the Oneida people. When the Confederacy learned of this a special Grand Council was held in May of 1993 with the so-called "CEO" asked to attend.

When he refused to appear he was stripped of his spokesperson status, a decision endorsed by all the Iroquois nations. This in turn was acknowledged by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, an agency which states it does not interfere in the political processes of Native nations yet that decision was overturned by the BIA at the insistence of the White House and US Representative Sherwood Boehlert.

YouTube: Ray Halbritter and Mario Cuomo

The CEO of the Oneidas was reinstated by the US in a political coup and carried out Cuomo's plan to exchange aboriginal land for slot machines.

The end result was the horrendous Oneida Nation v. Sherrill decision by the US Supreme Court in 2005 which bypassed the Constitution by holding that something called 'laches" supplemented that governing document. Not only did it end the land claims of the Oneidas but has been applied against Native people across the US.

Among the Akwesasne Mohawks Cuomo's legacy is indeed a bitter one. During the years 1988-90 a dozen unregulated casinos operated on Mohawk territory against the wishes of the Mohawk Nation and the majority of the Mohawk people. Despite clear evidence the slot machines and other devices were being carted across state lines in violation of New York and federal laws Cuomo refused to act other than a couple of minor raids coordinated by the FBI.

The situation devolved into a crisis when the Mohawk people erected anti-casino roadblocks in March of 1990 while calling for Cuomo to come to their aide. He did not. By the end of April the casino operators had created an enforcement arm called the Mohawk Sovereignty Security Force which used machine guns and explosives to dismantle the roadblocks.

I was a witness to the violence as the editor of the community's newspaper. I watched as hundreds of Mohawks abandoned their homes to find refuge in nearby Cornwall, Ontario. I was among the last holdouts at my brother's residence when, on April 30, we came under prolonged machine gun fire.

By pure chance I spoke to Mario Cuomo that evening. He had just completed a radio interview and as he was leaving the studio picked up the station's phone. I was on the other end. I explained to him the gravity of the situation and the extreme likelihood Mohawks would die that night. He dismissed my pleas even as I held the phone up during one particularly long burst of gunfire. He said to me that the casino goons "were not shooting at people" which I took to mean that we, as targets of these bullets, were less than human beings.

By dawn of the next day, May 1, two Mohawk men were murdered with one of the killings taking place on the "American" side of the territory. But neither the State Police or the FBI bothered to investigate the murders which remain unsolved almost 25 years later.

Such is the legacy of Mario Cuomo among the Iroquois, a governor who held great potential but in the end held office during one of the darkest eras in Iroquois history.

Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is the former editor of the journal Akwesasne Notes. A founding member of the Native American Journalists Association he served on the Board of Trustees for the National Museum of the American Indian. He is the author of many books and articles about aboriginal people including "Iroquois on Fire". He may be reached via e-mail: Kanentiio@aol or by calling 315-415-7288.

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