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Mohawks, New York stalled over casino revenue payouts

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The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe says it's "at an impasse" in talks with New York over sharing the revenue from the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino near Massena. The tribe says it's paid more than $50 million to the state, St. Lawrence and Franklin counties, and four north Country towns since 2005 under the Mohawks' gaming compact.

But those payments stopped last month when the tribe claimed New York violated an exclusivity clause in the compact by allowing slot machines on a little native territory in Clinton County. David Sommerstein reports.

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St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Chief Mark Garrow says the tribe has known about slot machines at the bingo in Ganienkeh in the town of Altona since 2007.  But it’s only now the tribe is halting casino revenue payments to state and local governments.  Garrow says Ganienkeh violates the tribe’s right to operate slot machines exclusively in 8 North Country counties.

We believe we have a fiduciary responsibility to our community to not only challenge the revenue share payments in violation of exclusivity but also to look out for the best interest in our community members.

But Garrow says his problem isn’t with Ganienkeh.  It’s with New York State.  Garrow claims the state has known about the slot machines since before 2004, when the revenue sharing agreement was made.

But in an e-mailed statement to the Watertown Daily Times, a spokesman for Governor David Paterson said his office only learned of the slot machines when the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe suspended the casino payouts.

State and tribal officials met last week in Lake George to discuss the possibility of arbitration.  Paterson’s office declined to comment on those talks.  Chief Garrow says they were not positive.

There was an attempt to negotiate our differences, but we feel at this point that those negotiations are at an impasse.

That’s left county and local officials who have come to rely on the casino payments in the lurch.  Joe Gray is supervisor of the town of Massena.

I understand the Mohawks’ frustration.  I understand the state’s frustration.  But that doesn’t get us our casino money.

Massena and three other towns have typically gotten 500,000 dollars a year from the tribe.  St. Lawrence and Franklin counties have each gotten about a million.

St. Lawrence County’s administrator Karen St. Hillaire says the county’s applied the money to economic development.

We have benefitted greatly from the revenue that has been generated from the Mohawk casino.  It’s allowed us to do things we never would have done before.

There’s been speculation that the dispute between the Mohawks and New York is really about the state’s plan to collect tobacco taxes from native-owned stores.  Mohawk chiefs have denied that.

Another wrinkle in this story is that little native territory in Clinton County, Ganienkeh. Mohawk families have been living there since the 1970s, after some Mohawks occupied a nearby girls’ camp in a three-month armed occupation.

The territory exists in a gray area because it’s not an actual reservation.  Shannon Hayes is a reporter with Akwesasne newspaper Indian Time.  She says some tribal members have expressed concern the casino revenue issue could shed unwanted light on Ganienkeh.

There were some people who spoke up to tribal council and said just leave them alone, you’re starting trouble, you’re going to make us fight with them.  Tribal council has said, y’know, it’s not an attack on Ganienkeh.  It’s just the state has violated its compact, so the tribe doesn’t want to give them money anymore.

St. Lawrence County’s Karen St. Hillaire says the county will get the casino money included in this year’s budget.  It’s next year that’s up in the air.  St. Hillaire says local officials have met with the tribal chiefs.  She says both want to find a way for the county and town portions of the revenue sharing to continue.

They’ve indicated that they would like to be able to dispense the monies to us directly.  Frankly, we’d like that, too.

For North Country Public Radio, I’m David Sommerstein.

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