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Governor Cuomo with county and tribal leaders signing the land claim MOU Wednesday in Albany. Photo provided by St. Regis Mohawk Tribe
Governor Cuomo with county and tribal leaders signing the land claim MOU Wednesday in Albany. Photo provided by St. Regis Mohawk Tribe

Mohawks, St. Lawrence Co. reach deal on land claim

Wednesday in Albany, tribal chiefs and St. Lawrence County officials joined Gov. Andrew Cuomo to sign a memorandum of understanding to resolve the more than three-decades old Mohawk land claim lawsuit.

The deal would allow Mohawks to buy up to 4,800 acres of land from willing sellers in northern St. Lawrence County and add it to the Akwesasne reservation.

St. Lawrence County would get a compensation package of $2.5 million from New York State, $1.5 million from the tribe, and then $4 million annually in perpetuity.

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The six nations of the Iroquois Confederacy c. 1720. Graphic: <a href="">Nonenmacher</a>, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

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Reported by

David Sommerstein
Reporter/ Producer

The deal would allow Mohawks to buy land in specific areas of the two contiguous towns to the reservation – Massena and Brasher. The state will reimburse the towns for lost property tax revenue.

There are other perks for the Mohawks: free tuition at SUNY schools, $2 million payments from the New York Power Authority for 35 years – Barnhart Island, where the Moses-Saunders hydropower dam on the St. Lawrence River is located, is part of the land claim – and 9 MW of cheap electricity.

Mohawk chief Paul Thompson said in a press release the deal "repairs our past" while also "providing opportunities for our future generations through education."

St. Lawrence County will also get nearly $2 million in casino revenue that had been held by the tribe in escrow.

The county will pay the towns of Massena and Brasher each a quarter of a million dollars a year, and the two school districts will get half a million.

There's also a laundry list of goodies for St. Lawrence County: a hangar for the Massena airport, an ATV trail in the Brasher State Forest, and the beginning an environmental review of improvements to Route 11. The Watertown Daily Times reports that would be a study for a bypass around Canton and Potsdam.

St. Lawrence County legislature chairman Jonathan Putney called the deal "good news for all residents" of the county and said it will end "years of discord".

But not everyone is satisfied. The leaders of Massena and Brasher, the towns where the land would come from, are incensed. Massena town supervisor Joe Gray called the deal "woefully inadequate."

"We are losing part of our community," Gray said. "We are losing a hamlet within our township. We are losing part of our history."

Gray says he doesn't blame the Mohawks. He blames county officials and Gov. Cuomo for not involving him in the negotiations and for lying that he was going to be included in the negotiations. He says it's all about politics. Gov. Cuomo and all of the St. Lawrence County legislators are up for re-election this year.

Gov. George Pataki and the Mohawks announced one of these deals years ago, but that all fell apart. But now there are some differences. The Mohawks already have a casino compact in place, with gaming exclusivity in the North Country. So that's already dealt with, unlike in that Pataki deal. Also, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against most of these kind of land claims when it struck down the Oneida Nation's claim in central New York. So the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe has an incentize to get something done and not let the claim proceed in court.

But there are still big questions. It's unclear how the traditional longhouse Akwesasne Mohawks will react. Also, part of the land claim is in Franklin County, and there's no deal with that legislature.

In addition, the federal government itself, which sued on behalf of the Mohawks, has to drop the land claim for the deal to take effect.

Click "Listen" to hear Martha Foley and David Sommerstein discuss the land claim deal.

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