Inching Ahead on a Tribal Casino Agreement
CARRYING on a tradition of nearly four centuries of rocky relations, whites and native Indians here have been feuding in and out of court for the last few years over a proposed casino and a compensation claim for land the tribe says was stolen.
Now a glimmer of compromise has enticed leaders from both sides into talks that could result in Long Island’s first casino.
Some Suffolk County legislators have met with Shinnecock tribal trustees about finding an alternate site for a casino away from Indian lands in the Hamptons, where it has been proposed and which officials adamantly oppose.
Many hurdles remain, especially finding an acceptable location. But if that can be accomplished, Shinnecock leaders say they are eager to also resolve their land lawsuit.
“A global settlement would be very welcome,” Frederick C. Bess, chairman of the Shinnecock Indian Nation trustees, said in an interview. “We want to sit down and negotiate something amicable to all of us, a win-win. We’re always trying to be good neighbors. We have to live together on Long Island.”
The overtures have included a pro-casino presentation by tribal members to a county legislative committee and a tour of the reservation in late June by the Legislature’s presiding officer, William J. Lindsay, and its economic development chairman, Wayne R. Horsley, both Democrats.
“I’ve always been a proponent of gaming,” Mr. Lindsay said in an interview. “A facility on the East End is not the smartest thing, because the roads and infrastructure couldn’t support it and the communities are opposed. But Suffolk is a big place, with lots of arteries like the Long Island Expressway and Sunrise Highway and places where it might go, including downtowns that need revitalization.”
What sparked the new talks was progress in the Indians’ decades-long attempt to win federal recognition. They now predict winning recognition in a year or two.
That official status, along with state approvals that the tribe would seek, could legally entitle the Shinnecock to a casino on their reservation — or a site purchased elsewhere.
Anticipating that likelihood, officials like Mr. Lindsay say they want to work with the tribe to find the best location.
Proponents say a casino would generate thousands of jobs, tax revenue and an economic ripple totaling billions of dollars. Critics doubt whether any community would welcome a casino and dispute its local benefits.
The talks stem from two federal court cases involving a 2003 Shinnecock attempt to build a casino here and the tribe’s 2005 land claim. The Shinnecock lost the first legal rounds but appealed. Both cases are pending.
The tribe says it deserves compensation for its former territories and desperately needs a casino for self-sufficiency.
Many families on the reservation struggle financially. Their plight is underscored by the surrounding opulence of the modern Hamptons, with waterfront estates and summering celebrities and tycoons — on former Indian land. Some garages of the rich are bigger than the homes on the reservation.
The Shinnecock trace their roots back 10,000 years. They welcomed the first English arrivals here in 1640, but relations soured, and the Shinnecock were forced to sell land. Historians say dubious deals manipulated the tribe out of most of its territory.
“Everything was stacked against the Indians from the beginning,” said John A. Strong, a retired history professor at Long Island University.
Eventually the Indian presence here shrank to an 800-acre peninsula in Shinnecock Bay, the reservation where nearly half the 1,300 current members live.
“On one side of the street you have basic homes, and on the other side you have multimillion-dollar mansions,” Mr. Bess said.
While some Shinnecock have prospered as doctors or lawyers, many are unemployed or subsist on meager incomes.
“They really need jobs,” said John Robert Zellner, former cochairman of the Southampton Town anti-bias task force. “Some people are still living in houses with dirt floors and leaky roofs. There’s a lot of poverty.”
A few Indians profit by claiming a tribal exemption to sell untaxed cigarettes at small tobacco shops along Montauk Highway. State officials have threatened to crack down, and a grocery chain has sued to stop tax-free sales.
The tribe explored various ventures that never materialized: windmills, cellphone towers and a waste depot. They opened a shellfish hatchery that was wiped out by the brown tide and is now back in operation.
Inspired by lucrative Indian casinos around the country, the Shinnecock finally pushed to pursue one with a powerful ally: Gateway Casino Resorts in Detroit, whose principals include Marian Ilitch, owner of the MotorCity Casino. Her family’s enterprises include Little Caesars Pizza and the Detroit Tigers.
Southampton officials recoiled in 2003 when the Shinnecock cleared some trees and had a casino groundbreaking at Westwoods, a 79-acre Indian property west of the reservation. The town spent $3 million fighting in United States District Court to block the project, saying it would be disastrous for traffic, the environment and development.
Upping the ante in 2005, the tribe went to federal court seeking compensation from the state and others for nearly 3,000 acres taken in 1859. The land now includes Stony Brook University’s Southampton campus, Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, the National Golf Links of America and the Shinnecock Hills community.
Eventually one judge rejected the land claim, and another ruled that Westwoods was not part of the original reservation and thus the tribe had no immunity from local zoning laws. The tribe appealed both rulings, and the suits are awaiting appellate decisions on upstate Oneida Indian cases.
One consolation in the disputes was Judge Thomas C. Platt’s finding that the Shinnecock are a valid tribe, but the Bureau of Indian Affairs did not take that as binding. But in May the federal government said it might expedite its decision on tribal status.
In the search for an alternate casino location, the Suffolk legislators have declined to specify potential sites. Southampton’s new town supervisor, Linda A. Kabot, remains opposed to a casino here but suggested two possibilities, Calverton or Yaphank. If the casino were in the town, she said it should be in the west, around Gabreski Airport.
Several people in the dispute have described the Westwoods groundbreaking and the land claim as leverage to get a casino elsewhere. The tribe’s chairman, Mr. Bess, said: “We would negotiate for a better site somewhere else on Long Island — the closer to New York City the better. That’s where the population is.”
One Hamptons casino opponent, Marion Boden, former president of a local civic group, said that she sympathized with the search for another site and sensed that the backlash has moderated. “A collaborative effort would be a dream,” she said.
But “not-in-my-backyard” resistance will be a formidable obstacle, said Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., a Republican whose district includes the reservation. “If we’re not the Nimby capital of the world, we’re in the top five,” he said.
Also voicing doubts, County Executive Steve Levy, a Democrat, said, “It would be a hard sell for me to say a casino is the best way to go.” He disputed whether casinos benefit communities.
Mr. Bess is firm about the benefits to the tribe. “We just have to survive,” he said. “We’re fighting to preserve our culture.”