Let the games begin
A deadline and a cessation of sovereignty
Gaming issues surface in New York and Virginia
SYRACUSE, N.Y. - May Day has come and gone, but the Oneida Indian Nation of New York and New York state are still not talking despite an April 30 deadline imposed by the Department of Interior for the two parties to begin renegotiating their 1993 gaming compact. Interior will now decide by June 14 on the current validity of a compact it initially approved 14 years ago.
Both sides remain steadfast. The Oneidas insist that the compact, which governs the Nation's Turning Stone Resort and Casino, remains in effect and cannot be revised without the consent of both parties. Albany argues that the agreement is void because the Legislature never ratified it. Former Gov. Mario Cuomo, with whom OIN negotiated the compact, did not submit it to the Legislature in 1993. Nor did legislators raise any fuss about it then.
(Four Directions Media, owner of Indian Country Today, is a business enterprise of OIN.)
Albany is obviously looking to grab a slice of the Oneida slot-win pie and has reportedly proposed a 33 percent cut. This is preposterous. The current ''industry standard'' (if it can be called that) was set at 25 percent between Connecticut and its two tribal casinos - even though the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act mandates no such ''revenue sharing.''
In a rather high-handed op-ed in the May 6 Albany Times Union, commentator Fred LeBrun asserts that Albany's designs on one-third of something to which it has no legal entitlement ''seems fair'' to him. He offers no logical explanation of why this is ''fair'' and like many of the ill-informed who offer their opinions on Indian money, ignores the fact that Indian casinos exist to fund tribal government programs, not state treasuries. He's obviously never read the act.
Turning Stone is not a ''fantasy,'' as LeBrun so cavalierly describes it. It is a very tangible reality that has brought prosperity and promise to OIN and its neighbors after years of bumbling and stumbling in Albany that have effectively ruined the central New York economy.
There is no justification for a 33-percent skimming of Oneida money by Albany. Yet that's not to say it won't happen. Ever since City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York, OIN has seen its bargaining leverage steadily dwindle to the point that the beleaguered BIA is now making decisions for it. While the outcome here remains unknown, after Sherrill, the Oneidas likely - and unfortunately - expect the worst.
After all, the lion's share of their ancestral territory has already been stolen from them. Now that they've re-emerged as successful entrepreneurs, Albany still wants more. As the great Yogi Berra once said, ''It's like deja vu all over again.''
Recognition - at last
Six tribes of Indians in Virginia may soon (and finally) be recognized for who they are. But to get that recognition, they are ceding a portion of their sovereignty.
For much of the past decade, the Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Monocan, Nansemond, Rappahannock and Upper Mattaponi tribes have sought federal recognition as sovereign Indian governments. Virginia politicians, citing the ''threat'' of casino gaming, have steadfastly refused to support the tribes. Off-track betting and the state lottery are quite popular in the ''Old Dominion,'' but there exists in Virginia a widespread, negative, knee-jerk reaction to the word ''casino.''
Tribal leaders have repeatedly insisted over the years they were not interested in casino gaming; rather, they wanted the respect and benefits that come with federal acknowledgement. Earlier this year, the six tribes formally agreed to give up their gaming rights guaranteed under IGRA.
In return, the House of Representatives on May 8 approved a bill by voice vote to grant federal recognition to the six tribes. The Senate must still act on the bill; the tribes hope it passes in time for them to participate in events marking the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown.
It always seemed incongruous, to say the least, for the Indians who greeted the English colonists who settled and overran what later became ''Virginia'' to remain unrecognized as such. Virginia's harsh racism and discrimination forced countless Indians underground; for decades, many declared themselves ''colored'' in the state's censuses to avoid persecution. It's not that they're ''back'' - they never left.
Tribal prerogative and a new quid pro quo?
It is no doubt the prerogative of a tribe's leaders and members to determine how to address questions of sovereignty. That is, of course, what sovereignty is all about - self-determination. The six Virginia tribes decided that gaining formal federal recognition is worth the trade-off of ceding sovereignty when it comes to gaming. In their view, this was the correct path to take.
This whole situation raises the question: Under what circumstances can, or should, tribal sovereignty be compromised? Those following sovereignty issues in recent years have seen how 1970s-era settlement agreements in Maine and Rhode Island have seriously hampered tribal efforts at economic development in those states.
Under these agreements, the various tribes in both states basically submitted to state jurisdiction in a number of areas, including gaming. Now that gaming has proven to be a potentially lucrative windfall - 19 years after IGRA - tribal efforts to capitalize on the fruits of gaming have been repeatedly stymied by state officials in both Rhode Island and Maine.
Two questions: Will this sovereignty cessation affect other tribes seeking federal acknowledgement via Congress in the future? Will giving up gaming rights become a quid pro quo for congressional recognition?
While it's too early at this writing to offer the six tribes congratulations, it is certainly a long overdue sign of respect. Let's hope it comes soon.