Court sets Shinnecock recognition schedule

Gale Courey Toensing
5/31/09

SHINNECOCK, N.Y. – The Shinnecock Indian Nation has taken a giant leap toward federal recognition and the possibility of owning the first casino in the New York City area.

The tribal nation reached a settlement with the Interior Department May 26 that requires the BIA to issue a Proposed Finding on the tribe’s petition for federal recognition by Dec. 15. A Final Determination could be rendered as early as June 2010, placing the Shinnecock Nation on the list of federally recognized American Indian tribes.

“As a result of this settlement, our more than 30-year quest for federal recognition is finally within our grasp,” said Randy King, chairman of the tribe’s three-member board of trustees. “We look forward to reclaiming our rightful place on this list, which will enable us to qualify for federal programs long denied to our people. To be denied the ability to partner with the federal government on housing, healthcare, educational and economic justice initiatives is no longer tolerable.

“This recognition, when it inevitably comes, will come after years of anguish and frustration for many members of our Nation, living and deceased. As Indian people, even though we’ve maintained who we are for generations, and surrounded by some of the wealthiest communities in the country, perhaps this recognition will help some of our neighbors better understand us and foster a new mutual respect.”

The Shinnecock Indian Nation is the poster child for the BIA’s long and winding road to federal recognition. The tribe filed for federal status in 1978 soon after the BIA established its seven criteria process. It was fourth on the list of petitioners back then.

In 2005, a federal judge bypassed the BIA recognition process and ruled that the state-recognized Shinnecock Indians are indeed a federal tribe, but the Interior Department refused to recognize the judge’s ruling despite a law saying tribes can be federally recognized by the BIA process, by Congress or by a federal judge.

In 2006, the tribe filed the lawsuit charging Interior with undue delay. After a series of legal roadblocks, local opposition, and other tangled delays since its petition was filed, the nation found it had regressed from fourth to ninth on the petitioners list by 2007.

The new court stipulation, which was approved by federal District Court Judge Joseph Bianco, settles the tribe’s unreasonable delay lawsuit and puts the tribe at the head of the BIA’s petitioners’ list.

“Given that another federal judge, District Court Judge Thomas Platt, already reviewed our case in 2005 and determined that we are an Indian tribe under federal law, we are fully confident this process can only end with our placement on the list (of federally recognized tribes) by DOI,” Trustee Fred Bess said.

In addition to the Dec. 15 deadline for a Proposed Finding, the agreement cuts in half the comment period following the Proposed Finding from a maximum of 360 days to 180 days, though it could be as quick as 90 days. Overall, the agreement ensures that a final decision will be reached in 2010, possibly as early as June.

Being federally recognized will allow the tribe to pursue economic development through the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. To that end, the trustees wrote to Gov. David Paterson May 26 to open discussions.

“Governor, the federal recognition means so much to our people in part because it will allow us to pursue the economic justice that has been wrongfully denied us for decades. We are fully prepared to pursue that economic justice, including gaming opportunities, so that our people have the housing, health care, schools and jobs that we need. Our people will expect no less,” the trustees wrote.

The Shinnecocks will be able to establish Class II gaming on their 800-acre reservation as soon as they are recognized. But the 1,000-member tribe has faced local opposition from residents in the Hamptons area of Long Island, and has considered instead a full scale – and much more profitable – Class III gaming operation elsewhere.

The trustees stressed timeliness in their letter to Paterson.

“We fully intend to remain good neighbors as we pursue opportunities to provide jobs for our people. We look forward to working with Gov. Paterson, who has demonstrated a true understanding of the challenges we have faced, to bring those efforts to a successful conclusion. There is no reason to wait for the recognition process to end, and every reason to act now so we can resolve these matters sooner than later,” Trustee Gordell Wright said.

Paterson issued the following statement in response to a request for comment: “The governor’s office will continue to monitor the federal recognition process that is currently underway. At this time, it is premature to discuss New York’s position with respect to a possible casino for the Shinnecock Indian Nation.”

Federal acknowledgment will also allow the tribe to resolve more than $1 billion of land claims, including a claim for 3,600 acres in the wealthy East End area of Long Island.

The land claim is based on a 1703 lease between Southampton and the tribe, a coastal people of the Algonquin language group. The lawsuit charges that a group of powerful investors conspired to break the lease in 1859, sending the state Legislature a fraudulent petition from a number of Shinnecock tribesmen. Although other tribal members protested immediately, the Legislature approved the sale of 3,600 acres, leaving the tribe with the 800 acres and an additional 88 acres of reservation land.

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