Catskills casino defeat is not a big loss

By Doug George-Kanentiio
News From Indian Country

The U.S. Department of the Interior's rejection of the application by the St. Regis Tribal Council to build a casino in the Catskills has not sparked an uprising among the Mohawks. In fact, other than a few tribal officials, no one seems to care.

Akwesasne (also known as St. Regis) is my home community, the place where I was born and attended school. I later worked there as the editor of the local newspaper and was a part of the group that established the reservation's radio station in 1984.

It is important to note that Akwesasne sits astride the international border on both banks of the St. Lawrence River. Its 12,000 residents are almost equally divided into “Canadian” and “American” sides. There are three governing agencies: the Canadian-based Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, the U.S.– recognized St. Regis Tribal Council and the traditional Mohawk Nation Council.

Of these three, the St. Regis Tribal Council was the only one pressing for a casino in the Catskills, a region outside of the ancestral boundaries of the Mohawk Nation that ended at the east branch of the Delaware River. We have no business being in Monticello, rightfully the aboriginal homeland of the Lenapi.

Tribal officials also had no business teaming up with Empire Resorts, a casino-based company from Nevada. Empire has never made any attempt to communicate directly to the Mohawk people to explain how it was going to come up with the $600 million for the casino project.

Many suspected the tribe would take a page from the Oneida Nation of New York and mortgage everything it had to raise the cash. Since the tribe has few tangible assets, this could only mean the Mohawks would be in debt for decades, paying off a massive debt with the casino at risk.

The tribe has another serious issue: It was eager to extinguish our land claims in return for a new casino compact. This meant surrendering thousands of acres of land in northern New York for a 30-acre rundown racetrack, hundreds of miles from our home.

This distance exposed another problem. As is the case with the Turning Stone Casino, we knew few, if any, of the 3,000 jobs would be filled by Mohawks. The Department of the Interior was right in citing this as a major problem with the project. Just how were we to take advantage of these jobs when it meant either a 700-mile weekly commute or relocation from our families?

Yet another concern was the tribe's capacity to control a massive new casino. Since we don’t have sufficient policing, investigative, judicial or administrative authority in Sullivan County, which entity would actually ensure the casino was a clean operation? The tribe would have had no choice but to cede the essence of Mohawk sovereignty to New York state. That would have a dramatic impact at Akwesasne, where all current businesses exist because of our exemption from state laws.

So why should we care? Akwesasne is a prosperous community. It is now the most vital economic factor in the nearby towns of Malone and Massena. We can do quite well without another casino. For those who use our “poverty” as an excuse to promote the Catskills casino, come and visit us and see for yourself why we don’t want conditional money.

There is no celebrating at Akwesasne because of the casino’s defeat, but neither are there any tears. For those who desire a Catskills casino, either amend your state constitution or find another sucker.