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Local officials mum on status of land claim negotiations

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MASSENA –– Local officials who attended a Tuesday afternoon meeting called by a member of the St. Lawrence County Legislature to discuss a proposed settlement of the Mohawk land claims in St. Lawrence County said prior to the meeting that they had no specifics on what would be discussed.

Massena Town Supervisor Joseph D. Gray called the special executive session meeting of the Massena Town Board, saying they expected “to hear the St. Lawrence County Legislature’s proposed settlement of the Mohawk land claims.”

No action was being taken following the meeting, he said.

Among those on hand were members of the Massena and Brasher town boards, representatives from the St. Lawrence Central School District and county Legislature Chairman Jonathan Putney, D-Waddington. Legislator Anthony J. Arquiett, D-Helena, was also expected to attend, as well as a representative from the Massena Central School District.

The meeting lasted well over two hours, with Brasher town officials leaving the meeting as a group approximately two hours into the session.

Allyson Doctor, director of Communications for the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, confirmed progress had been made in reaching an agreement with St. Lawrence County officials.

“The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe has been in negotiations with New York state over land claims for years. In the past year, the negotiations have progressed and a preliminary agreement between New York state, St. Lawrence County and the tribe is actively being discussed, but has not been finalized. The negotiations are ongoing, and it would be premature to comment at this time,” she said in a statement from the tribal council.

Gray said he received a call from a county legislator asking that he arrange Tuesday’s meeting. “I don’t believe there is a land claim to discuss (in Massena),” he said. “I’m not optimistic about the outcome for Massena.”

Brasher Town Supervisor M. James Dawson said he had not heard anything about the land claim issue with the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe since last August when he and Gray were invited to Albany.

“I’ve had no communication on the land claims,” he said.

Among their discussions during that August visit, he said, was Brasher land that could be impacted by a land claims settlement, although he maintained as he has in the past that there are no land claim issues in Brasher.

Putney was mum about what would be discussed during Tuesday’s meeting.

“We’re going to have a discussion about an important issue in St. Lawrence County. We’re just trying to communicate with our neighbors affected by this,” he said.

Putney declined to confirm reports he and Arquiett would be in Albany on Wednesday to finalize details of a land claim settlement with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. Asked about that report, Putney said, “Time will tell.” A July 2013 court ruling dismissed a majority of land claims in a suit filed by St. Regis Mohawks seeking the return of property in St. Lawrence and Franklin counties. But the so-called Bombay or Hogansburg Triangle in the middle of the St. Regis Reservation remains in play.

The ruling in the U.S. Northern District of New York Court, Albany, dismissed the majority of a land claims suit filed by the St. Regis Mohawks against the state of New York seeking the return of property in St. Lawrence and Franklin counties.

But the decision filed by Judge Lawrence E. Kahn in federal court, which largely affirmed recommendations made by U.S. Magistrate Theresa Wiley Dancks in October 2012, found merit in the claim for the return of 2,000 acres of the so-called Bombay or Hogansburg Triangle in the middle of the transborder reservation to the Mohawks as part of a 1796 treaty.

The land claims case has been pending in federal courts for more than two decades after the three governments on the transborder reservation - the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council, the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne represented by the Canadian government and the traditional People of the Mohawks - were consolidated in August 1991.

The claim called for the return to the Mohawks of one square mile in the village of Massena, a tract in the town of Massena, two comparable areas in Fort Covington, Barnhart Island, Croil Island and Long Sault Island, as well as land in the town of Bombay known as the Bombay or Hogansburg Triangle.

Judge Kahn said in his ruling that data indicated the Hogansburg Triangle “has a very different demographic composition from the surrounding areas” in terms of the Native-American population. He said that area showed a total 72 percent nonreservation Indian population in 1990 and 75.7 percent in 2000.

Based on that, the court will allow the Mohawks to continue pursing their legal claims to the areas identified by the court.

Tribal leaders in July recalled that as part of lengthy negotiations between the tribe, state and counties, a settlement was reached in 2005 that would allow the Mohawks to purchase, from willing sellers within their original reservation, parcels that would then be recognized as part of the reservation. That settlement was part of larger negotiations, which included revenue sharing provisions from the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino.

However, the tribe had withheld slot machine payments since 2010, citing a casino on the Ganienkeh reservation in Altona as a breach of their gaming exclusivity compact with the state.

They came to an agreement with state officials in May to resume revenue sharing from the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino, ending the dispute. Those talks, which they described as “positive discussions to date,” also included conversations about land claims settlement.

There has been speculation the settlement could result in lands on the North Road in the town of Brasher, between Helena and Akwesasne, and property in Rooseveltown in the town of Massena, a hamlet that borders the reservation, being transferred to the tribe over time in a willing seller, willing buyer package.

A memorandum of understanding would likely result in the largest share of monies going to the county, with smaller amounts distributed to the towns of Brasher and Massena and slightly lower amounts allocated to the St. Lawrence Central and Massena Central school districts.

Town officials would likely be concerned about the impact of any lost lands on property tax revenues as well as the loss of assessed value, which plays a key role in the formula that determines sales tax revenues distributed to each municipality.

State Senator Betty Little, whose district covers Franklin County as well as a small portion of St. Lawrence County, incuding the town of Lawrence in the St. Lawrence Central School District, said she was not aware of any settlement on land claims issues with the tribe,

Fort Covington Town Supervisor Pat Manchester said it was her belief the settlement was limited to St. Lawrence County entities. She said the town of Fort Covington has not been in negotiations at all in recent months with the land claim settlement.

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Malone Telegram reporter Whitney Randolph contributed to this story.

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