New York Shinnecock face late recognition challenge by casino group

By Frank Eltman
Central Islip, New York (AP) July 2010

A small Long Island-based Indian tribe seeking federal recognition since the 1970s got some help July 21 from a sympathetic federal judge, who ordered the Interior Department to indicate within 10 days when it might rule on an 11th-hour challenge to the tribe’s efforts.

The Southampton-based Shinnecock Tribe was told in June that the Interior Department had approved the tribe’s application for federal recognition, pending a 30-day comment period. But a Connecticut-based group filed a challenge during July, contending it was seeking to protect the jobs of 18,000 casino workers in that state, said the Shinnecocks “failed to meet all the criterion for federal recognition.”

Matthew Hennessy, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition for Gaming Jobs, said the Interior Department failed to consider that the Shinnecocks have received financial backing from a Detroit-based casino operator over the past several years.

“It is clear that this recognition process has been hijacked by wealthy casino developers solely for their benefit and as a result, a huge part of Connecticut’s economy is at stake,” Hennessy said in a statement. The group has not identified what businesses support the coalition.

The challenge puts on hold final recognition for the Shinnecocks, who have indicated they intend to operate a casino in New York, until the Interior Board of Indian Appeals rules on the Connecticut group’s challenge.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Mulry said he did not believe the appeals board was operating under any specific timetable for a decision.

But U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Bianco, noting the Shinnecocks’ effort has been repeatedly delayed, said he expected the appeals board to commit to a date for a ruling by the end of the month. If that doesn’t happen, Bianco said he would consider an application by the tribe for a judgment in favor of the Shinnecocks’ application.

“Both sides have gone too far to have a delay,” Bianco said to a courtroom jammed with more than 100 Shinnecock members, many of whom were dressed in traditional Indian clothing, including feathered headdresses.

Lance Gumbs, a senior member of the tribal council, said after the court session that while members consider the Connecticut group’s challenge “frivolous,” he was pleased with the judge’s lack of appetite for further delay.

“What the nation wants is to have this resolved,” he said outside the federal courthouse. “The process has a deep flaw in it when someone can come in at the last minute and make a frivolous challenge.”

Federal recognition is required for any Indian tribe seeking to operate a casino. Tribal members are also eligible for scholarships and other federal aid when recognition is granted.

Spokespeople for both the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, which runs the Foxwoods Casino, and the Mohegan Tribe, which operates Mohegan Sun, have denied any involvement with the Connecticut group. Shinnecock leaders said they were willing to believe that, but Gumbs said he was suspicious that unions or others with a financial stake in the success of the Connecticut casinos may be behind the challenge.

“They are cowards because no one has come forward,” said Randy King, another Shinnecock trustee. “We are going to be recognized. It’s just a matter of time.”

Detroit-based Gateway Casino Resorts backed a $920,000 lobbying effort by the Shinnecocks between 2004 and 2008, according to data from a government watchdog group, the Center for Responsive Politics.

King called the Connecticut group’s objections over the Gateway support “totally ridiculous. If the investor was a native, would that make a difference?”