Press-Republican

May 23, 2013

Tribe eager to reclaim land

By DENISE A. RAYMO
Press-Republican

---- — AKWESASNE — Terms outlined but never ratified in a 2005 land-claims agreement between the state and the St. Regis Mohawk tribe will be the starting point for renewed talks.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Tribal Council chiefs announced a deal Tuesday that ended the tribe’s future withholding of a share of slot-machine profits and resurrected interest in settling the 31-year-old land-claims lawsuit the tribe has pending against the state as well as Franklin and St. Lawrence counties.

The tribe has released $30 million to New York state, half the profits collected since 2010 and withheld in protest to slot machines added to the Ganienkeh territory's bingo operation in Altona. Still in escrow is $30 million, withheld pending resolution of the land-claims suit.

'BACK ON THE TABLE'

Representatives from both counties are expected at the table when Cuomo convenes the first new negotiating session in Albany within the next 10 days, said Tribal Chief Ron LaFrance.

He led a news conference at the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino on Wednesday, when the Tribal Council emphasized its desire to have the longstanding issue resolved.

“Everything that was in the 2005 land claims is back on the table,” LaFrance said. “We’re the largest-growing community in the North Country. We have exploding population, with 400 people living in the Town of Massena and more in Fort Covington and Bombay.

“We recognized we don’t have enough land base,” he said. “We’re looking to expand our economy, and the only way to do that is a larger land base.

The land-claims suit has been in court for 31 years, LaFrance said.

"They stuck us here in this place, and we want to defend our boundaries.

“We are reclaiming our cultural heritage. The governor knew we’d push back, and we needed our issues settled," he continued. “We won’t go away; we can’t go away. We’re always here, and we can’t pick up and leave. 

"We could, but we don’t want to. We’re here until the end of time.”

VACANT FARMLAND

LaFrance denied a published report that the tribe is interested in obtaining 5,000 to 7,000 acres east of the Akwesasne reservation but said following the news conference, “between here and Fort Covington is a lot of vacant land, farmland that is not being farmed anymore.”

The land could be used to build homes or housing-development projects for Mohawks living elsewhere, he said. 

“We’re not looking to take over a neighborhood,” the chief said. “And no one wants to go with a land trust. That’s not a happy process. 

"We want to give our people the opportunity to come home.”

BARNHART ISLAND

Also in play during the renewed negotiations is a potential resolution of the tribe’s long-held opposition to the re-licensing of the New York Power Authority hydropower-generating operation on Barnhart Island, land awarded to Akwesasne Mohawks in a 1796 federal treaty.

Under the 2005 agreement, NYPA would have paid the tribe a total of $70 million over a span of 35 years to settle the claim and would have given ownership of two more St. Lawrence River islands — Croil and Long Sault — to the tribe in exchange for dropping its re-licensing suit.

The tribe would have also received $30 million from the state and federal governments to settle the land claim and the ability to buy up to 7,005 acres around the reservation from willing sellers, land that would come off county tax rolls and be deemed sovereign Mohawk land.

But the counties rejected the proposed settlement “in the 11th hour,” LaFrance said, because they believed $4 million each in promised annual payments was not enough compensation for the lost land.

'OPENED A DOOR'

The tribe is hoping to avoid a repeat of that in the new talks, saying “we are working on a better relationship that we’ve had in the past” with the Franklin County Legislature.

“The biggest obstacle before was to get the counties involved, so we want to get them back to the table,” said Chief Paul Thompson. 

“They’re our friends again. We opened a door yesterday, and we want them involved in the talks.”

Access to cheap electricity and free tuition to any Mohawk who wanted to attend a college in the State University of New York system was also included in the 2005 deal.

“The (power) allocation we have is almost 9 megawatts now, so this would be additional megawatts,” LaFrance said.

“We’re paying some of the highest costs in the state now, but you can’t develop the community or attract light industry or medium industry,” he said. 

“You need cheap power to do that.”

Email Denise A. Raymo: draymo@pressrepublican.com