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Pataki, Mohawks Sign Land Claim Deal

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Governor Pataki and the Akwesasne Mohawks yesterday formally signed an agreement to settle the 23 year-old Mohawk land claim in St. Lawrence and Franklin Counties. David Sommerstein has details.

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MARTHA FOLEY: What’s in this settlement?

DAVID SOMMERSTEIN: A lot.  To end the claim to their ancestral lands, the Mohawks will get $100 million – $30 million from the state, $70 million from the New York Power Authority.  They’ll get Long Sault and Croil Islands in the St. Lawrence River, as well as 215 acres of land on Massena Point.  The Mohawks will also get the right to buy almost 14,000 acres of land from willing sellers in the claim area.  They’ll get cheap power from the Moses-Saunders power dam and free tuition at state universities.

The Akwesasne Mohawk community approved the settlement in a referendum last November.  I spoke with St. Regis Mohawk Chief, Jim Ransom, while he was waiting for his plane in Albany.  He said the land is what clinched the deal for tribal members.

MF: So what about the town and county governments who will essentially lose this land base when it becomes part of the reservation?

DS: The agreement includes compensation for them.  Originally the state offered a 10 million dollar fund.  But St. Lawrence and Franklin Counties both said that wasn’t nearly enough, and they both passed resolutions against the settlement. 

The deal says the state will pay the counties $2 million dollars, to be distributed among the local governments. In addition, the state will reimburse the counties for back taxes not paid while the land was under the cloud of litigation.

County leaders were in Albany yesterday for the state association of counties annual meeting, and I wasn’t able to reach them for comment.

MF: Where do the tax and casino issues fit in?

DS: They don’t fit into the land claim agreement.  The Mohawk tribal councils wanted to keep those issues separate.  But Governor Pataki and the St. Regis Mohawks also announced yesterday a framework for negotiating a trade agreement.

It would allow the tribe to continue to not charge sales tax on cigarette and gas sales on its reservation near Massena.  So those items would remain cheaper in native-owned convenience stores than they are in non-native stores off the reservation.  But the Mohawks WOULD agree to charge sales tax to non-natives who buy tobacco and gas at stores near a future casino in the Catskills that has yet to be built.

Which of course tells us that the St. Regis Mohawks will be among the five tribes Governor Pataki wants to authorize to build gaming resorts in the Catskills, most in Sullivan County.  The Governor is expected to propose legislation to that effect as early as today.

MF: The land claim has been around for more than two decades.  We’ve seen settlements come and go, including one proposed settlement just a couple of years ago that fell apart.  How is this different or important?

DS: The big difference here is that two years ago the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, which only represents the U.S. side of the reservation, signed a big settlement that binded together the land claim, the casino, and the taxation issues.  This time, those are separate.  Only the land claim settlement was signed yesterday.  And the two other Akwesasne Mohawk tribal councils – one represents the Canadian side of the reservation and one represents the traditional longhouse form of government – have signed on to this.

If the deal stands, it’s pretty big.  Native land claims in New York generally, and the Mohawk claim specifically in the North Country, have been a sort of dark cloud over the title of thousands of acres of land.  This would remove that legal doubt in St. Lawrence and Franklin Counties.  Former chiefs and former governor Mario Cuomo have all tried but failed to strike agreements in the past.  Yesterday, Governor Pataki and the Mohawk chiefs succeeded.  Now it goes on to the state and federal governments to approve.

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