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Chief Paul Thompson speaking at Wednesday's press conference, with Chief Ron LaFrance (left). Photo: David Sommerstein.
Chief Paul Thompson speaking at Wednesday's press conference, with Chief Ron LaFrance (left). Photo: David Sommerstein.

Mohawk chiefs hope casino pact paves way for more land

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On Tuesday, Governor Cuomo and the chiefs of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe announced a surprise deal in Albany. It grants the Mohawks' exclusive gaming rights in the North Country. In return, the tribe will resume sharing millions of dollars in casino revenue with New York State and St. Lawrence and Franklin counties. That after a three-year dispute.

Yesterday, the chiefs were back in Akwesasne, holding a press conference at their brand new hotel and casino expansion.

They called Cuomo "sincere". They said it was the promise of resolving the Mohawks' 31-year old land claim that made the gaming pact possible.
David Sommerstein reports.

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Inside the Akwesasne Mohawk casino hotel lobby. Photo: Claire Woodcock.

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For a sunny weekday at noon, there are a lot of people feeding the slots under neon lights on the Akwesasne Mohawk casino floor. And there’s a long line at the buffet. Joe and Liz Quesnel of Fort Covington didn’t even come here to gamble.

For the good food! Gotta worry about eating too much and gaining too much!

Like most big casinos these days, the Mohawks want to be a destination, even if people aren’t betting types. That’s why there’s a sports bar to rival any in the North Country. And it’s why the tribe invested 72 million dollars in a 150 room, seven floor hotel.

[lobby sound]

The lobby’s elegant and tasteful. Director Carla Christopher says you can get a massage or facial at the spa upstairs or swim in the pool and hot tub down the hall. She says the first week’s been a success.

We’re at least between 80 percent and a hundred percent full every night. Weekends are full. People are just so excited to be here.

On Tuesday, Governor Cuomo essentially promised this would be the only casino in the North Country for the foreseeable future. And the Mohawk chiefs promised that a three-year dispute about a competing gaming operation at a Mohawk community in Clinton County is – pretty suddenly - history.

That’s something that they’ll going to have to deal with with the Governor.

So at yesterday’s press conference, the question was…what changed so quickly? Chief Ron LaFrance of the tribal council answered without pausing a second.

The ability to expand our territory. That’s what every council since they stuck us on this place…

The claim that New York stole 12,000 acres of land in St. Lawrence and Franklin counties in the late 1700s is what matters, LaFrance said, now more than ever because Akwesasne is growing fast.

We have 400 people that live in the town of Massena. We have people that live in Fort Covington and Bombay. And we recognize the fact that we don’t have a large enough land base. And what we told the Governor is that we plan to expand and diversify our economy, and the only way to do that is to have a larger land base.

Land claim settlements, deals over taxing cigarettes and gasoline, agreements on free SUNY tuition for tribal members, have come and gone over the years. The latest was in 2005. What’s different today, said Chief Paul Thompson, is that Governor Cuomo seemed serious about making progress. And at the Capitol Tuesday, he told him so.

I told him, I says, I been down this road a couple times in this very room to sign an agreement with the state, but only to be put on the backburner. And I said I appreciate you bringing this back to the surface…get another kick at the can, so to speak.

Talk of land claim deals makes surrounding communities nervous, and sometimes outright angry. Thousands of non-native people also live in those contested areas. The whole island where the Moses-Saunders power dam is located is subject to the land claim.

But Chief Thompson said he hopes the fact that tribal revenues from this casino will once again flow to St. Lawrence and Franklin counties will bring local officials back to the table, too.

In other words, they’re our friends again. We understand that the counties need the revenues to support their programs, and because of the situation they haven’t been able to do that. Yesterday opened the doors to that. And so they will be consulted and they’ll be a part of fixing this problem.

Ray Cook is a longtime political actor in Akwesasne and currently works for Indian Country Today Media Network. He says what’s new is this hotel and casino, and the one thousand people who work here, and the successful Oneida and Seneca businesses across Upstate.

What’s good for our economies is what’s good for the regions that surround our Nations, and that is not lost on the Governor.

The chiefs said they’ll return to Albany within ten days to start anew land claim talks with Governor Cuomo. This time, with a strong economic hand.

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