AKWESASNE –– The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe is sending postcards to Franklin County residents to alert them to a website that contains information about the Memorandum of Understanding that was signed with St. Lawrence County that could be a prelude to settlement of the long-standing land claim dispute.
“To learn more about how the proposed settlement agreement benefits Franklin County, please visit www.ResolveTheBoundary.com,”; reads the card, which proclaims itself an “important notice for all residents of Franklin County.”
The tribe established the website after reaching an agreement with St. Lawrence County which would allow the tribe to purchase land in an area it claims as its historic home. Land purchased would be incorporated into the reservation.
In return, the state of New York would reimburse St. Lawrence County and the towns of Massena and Brasher –– where the land in question is located –– for any tax revenues they would lose. The state also agreed to make lump-sum payments to the municipalities.
In order for the settlement to move forward, Franklin County officials would also have to agree to its terms.
“We understand there are questions and interest from the residents of the area, and that is one of the main reasons we established the website –– www.ResolveTheBoundary.com –– so people had a resource to understand the facts behind the proposed settlement,” the Tribal Council said in an emailed response to questions about the postcard campaign. “Certainly, after 32 years, we are hopeful that a resolution may finally be at hand and that the process can continue moving forward. However, reaching an agreement with Franklin County is of paramount importance.”
The tribe called the signing of the MOU with St. Lawrence County was a historic step and said it wants the people of Franklin County and Akwesasne to be able to understand what was included in the MOU and how a final settlement agreement would benefit all of the communities involved.
Tribal leaders said the MOU outlines a potential settlement that will help the tribe to get the identified lands, while providing St. Lawrence County with benefits. The tribe wants to have a similar agreement with Franklin County as well.
Franklin County Legislature Chairman Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay, said at this point the county has had discussions with the state about the MOU, and that is as far as the discussions have gone.
“We are hopeful that a similar agreement can be reached with Franklin County, and we understand that County leaders and State leaders have had discussions on this matter. As a Tribal Council, we strongly prefer negotiation and agreement to the alternative, which is litigation,” the tribe’s email response said. “As evidenced by the recent decision by the Federal government regarding the 39-acre transfer station property in Fort Covington, the land into trust process is a viable option for tribes looking to reclaim their ancestral lands. However, the process is lengthy and expensive –– this particular case took seven years to resolve. We believe negotiation can prove more beneficial to all parties.”
The tribe is seeking roughly 9,900 acres in Franklin County in the area known as the Bombay Triangle and in the town of Fort Covington.
Tribal leaders said that the reason they are seeking this land is because “this land is our home –– forever.”
The tribe’s statement said their history has been marked by loss –– the loss of their language, parts of their culture and their land. Recently, they have been in a period of success and growth through their business enterprises and, according to the tribe, are now one of the strongest “economic engines” in the north country.
The tribe currently employs more than 1,600 people at their various businesses. One of the main businesses is the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino, with an annual payroll of $47 million. The tribe said it has worked with 244 vendors from Franklin County and 281 vendors from St. Lawrence County to support local jobs.
“Our employees live in Franklin County, St. Lawrence County and the surrounding area. Our business partners –– and the jobs we support –– are located in Franklin County, St. Lawrence County and the surrounding area. Yet, with all of this economic success, the status of our boundary remains unresolved after 32 years. Resolving this issue represents an opportunity for our Tribe to present opportunities for future generations of our people to live on and enjoy the lands of our ancestors and help continue the significant investments we have made in recent years,” the Tribal Council statement said.
“It also represents an opportunity to fulfill our ancestors’ legacy and complete the journey they started. The Franklin County lands identified as settlement lands are lands that were part of the original land base reserved by the Treaty of 1796 and lost through illegal purchases in the 1800’s. These lands are of particular importance to the Mohawks, and have always been part of any settlement discussion, as they are the lands that form the basis of the lawsuit.”
According to the tribe, the Bombay Triangle has been included in the settlement lands, since it is located in the middle of the reservation. The tribe stated that their people have always considered this area as part of their lands and they have purchased large portions of these properties over the years. This has lead to disputes over property taxes, provision of governmental services and jurisdiction.
“As was evidenced in our land into trust application, the Franklin County lands are, and have always been considered by both the Mohawks and the Federal government as, within the boundaries of the Saint Regis Mohawk Indian Reservation,” the Tribe said.
According to the MOU with St. Lawrence County, the tribe can only purchase from willing sellers in the identified areas. The tribe will be given the right of first refusal to purchase any parcels that may come up for sale or auction as a result of foreclosure. In a situation in which the owner of a piece of property would be interested in selling a parcel of land to the tribe, the parties would negotiate a sale price just like any other property sale.
The tribe said that anyone wishing to know more about the situation should visit www.ResolveTheBoundary.com. Also, if people have any questions regarding the discussions between Franklin County and the state, they should contact their representative on the Franklin County Legislature.