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NNY forest casino causes tension

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ALTONA — A small, unlicensed Native American casino has been operating for years on state land about 20 miles northwest of Plattsburgh. Its existence has become a costly problem for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

A midweek visit to the spartan gambling hall on Devils Den Road finds a dozen people playing some of the 100 slot machines in a bingo hall on state forest land leased to a private trust on a month-to-month basis as a home for a band of Mohawks. The unprecedented lease deal, struck by then-Secretary of State Mario M. Cuomo in 1977, created for New York’s governors — including his son, the current governor — a problematic community.

“Mario left a mess” by not resolving land rights issues, said Joseph Heath, a lawyer who represents Indian tribes. “But so did every other governor.”

The 1977 arrangement ended a three-year siege by Warrior Society Mohawks at Moss Lake in the town of Webb. They were given an alternate place to live here in rural Clinton County in a state forest. The deal was perhaps the most unusual state land transaction in four decades.

In the past seven years, the society has acquired 1,700 more acres as tax-exempt property and opened the unlicensed casino, causing unrest in the non-Indian and Mohawk communities alike.

Last week, after inquiries from the Times Union, Racing and Wagering Board Chairman John Sabini wrote to state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman to request an investigation into apparent “unlawful gaming activity” and real estate purchases from “illegal” proceeds.

“We are hoping that since this was created by state government, that state government will address these issues,” said Bill Favreau, Clinton County attorney.

Citing a breach of its exclusive rights to offer gambling in the six-county region of the north country, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council, the federally recognized Mohawk tribal government, argues the unregulated casino at Altona improperly competes with the state-approved Akwesasne Casino at the reservation some 51 miles northwest in Franklin County. As a result, the tribal council is withholding $34.1 million in contractual payments to the state. That money is intended to be shared by the state and communities near the reservation, but those municipalities have been waiting for the money for two years during the dispute. David Staddon, a spokesman for council, said the governor’s people have done nothing to try to resolve the matter.

That uncollected revenue is part of an accumulated $400 million the Cuomo administration isn’t getting from casinos operated under state gaming compacts with the Senecas and Mohawks. The state is in negotiations with the Senecas in Western New York, but a resolution with the Mohawks is about as complicated as any tribal issue can get. It is the latest issue among a host that have arisen since Mario Cuomo arranged for a group of Mohawks to live on state-owned property at Altona. The site is known as Ganienkeh, “Land of the Flint,” where Mohawks say the land at Altona is only part of what is theirs.

“It’s been steeped in controversy from Day One,” said Leigh Hunt, who headed state police operations in the region at the time. He said Cuomo “plopped” the tribal members in Clinton County without notice.

The situation is a dilemma for the governor: The state is losing money, but a confrontation with the Ganienkeh people could result in the type of armed standoff that is part of Ganienkeh’s history. Thirteen years after the Moss Lake confrontations, in 1990, a Vermont National Guard helicopter was struck by rifle fire from around Ganienkeh and a doctor aboard was seriously wounded. The ensuing standoff between Ganienkeh Mohawks and state police lasted 11 days. State Police were eventually allowed onto the territory to investigate, but no one was ever charged.

An entity called Turtle Island Trust, created by Mario Cuomo to handle the land lease, is composed of five trustees who work with Ganienkeh residents.

“They would say they are some of the least dangerous people anywhere,” said Christopher Nyhan, a member of the trust, a sort of landlord for Ganienkeh. “But if you are going to come and invade their land, they would defend it to the death.”

The current situation stems from government strategies formulated in 1977. Gov. Hugh Carey assigned the elder Cuomo to quell a potentially violent “occupation” by Warrior Society Mohawks at a former Girl Scout camp owned by the state in the western Adirondacks. The group had claimed the land, saying it was among 9 million acres illegally transferred to New York in the 18th century.

Cuomo arranged for the occupiers to move east to more than 5,700 acres — a parcel at Miner Lake in the town of Altona and a neighboring tract in the Macomb state reforestation area. The peaceful resolution showed “Mario Cuomo was a genius,” said Donald Washburn, a retired pastor of Burnt Hills United Methodist Church, who is chairman of Turtle Island Trust.

The Ganienkeh inhabitants consider the state property reclaimed Mohawk land and themselves a sovereign nation. They have kept out interlopers, especially anyone with illegal drugs or alcohol, with their own police force. They’ve needed money to grow, Washburn said. So the bingo hall, a gas station and smoke shop, a golf course and the casino opened after the Mohawk government to the north entered into its deal to share revenue from its Akwesasne Casino in 2005.

“It’s all about money,” said Washburn.

Ganienkeh expanded as real estate went on the market. Ganienkeh people bought land through Turtle Island Trust and have taken it off the tax rolls, costing local taxing authorities about $250,000, said Assemblywoman Janet Duprey, a regional lawmaker.

Yet the trust’s long-term lease on the state land ended in 1992 when it began to operate on month-to-month extensions, according to a letter from then-Environmental Conservation Commissioner Langdon Marsh. Marsh’s letter, citing lease violations, was tied to his concern that the Ganienkeh territory held a smoke shop and a bingo parlor, said Frank Abrams, an Indian liaison in Mario Cuomo’s Office of Indian Affairs.

A leader among the Ganienkeh residents, Tom Delaronde, said he would consider interview requests but did not schedule one. Cuomo administration officials would not comment. But Washburn and Duprey said numerous discussions have been held with Cuomo’s staff in attempts to deal with a variety of issues.

“All they want is to be left alone so they can have their own schools where the kids learn English and Mohawk,” Washburn said.

But many of Ganienkeh’s neighbors have a hard time understanding how tribal members buy farms, operate a smoke shop and run gaming businesses not only free from taxation but also causing the loss of Akwesasne Casino exclusivity fees, Duprey said.

“The issue with the casino is it’s unauthorized — and it’s on state property,” Duprey said. “Some people say, ‘Go in and shut it down.’ What’s the value of someone getting hurt or even killed? We’re working on it constantly. It’s truly a work in progress.”

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