The federal government has given preliminary recognition to a Long Island Indian tribe, setting in motion development of a possible casino close to the New York Racing Association’s two downstate tracks.
The move raises the question: Will the Indian tribe get a casino opened faster than the long-stalled video lottery terminal facility at Aqueduct?
The Dec. 15 decision by the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs, an Interior Department office, means the Shinnecock Indian Nation of Long Island at a minimum can, if the ruling is given final approval next year, build a Class II casino—no table games permitted and VLTs instead of standard slot machines—on its tribal land in Southampton along Long Island’s coast.
But the tribe has indicated an interest in a possible off-reservation casino—with slots and table games—closer to New York City. There have been suggestions the tribe could be interested in locating a casino at Aqueduct or Belmont Park. Earlier this spring, the tribe contacted Gov. David Paterson to signal its interest in a downstate casino if it won federal recognition.
The state is moving to permit a private operator, one of which includes a partnership with a Florida tribal business, to run the Aqueduct VLT casino for the next 30 years. Those discussions, however, have been stalled for months, with Paterson and legislative leaders unable to pick from the handful of bidders interested in the lucrative operation.
The Aqueduct casino was first approved in 2001, but the state has gone through a series of false starts over the years to select an operator.
There has been a push by some Long Island lawmakers for a casino at Belmont, and the Shinnecock tribe could be in line for such a deal if it wins final federal recognition from the Obama administration. That, however, would require the Obama administration to break with the previous Bush administration’s Interior Department, which cracked down on the location of Indian-owned casinos off reservation land.
“As a result of this finding, our more than 30-year quest for federal recognition is finally within our grasp,” Shinnecock Board of Trustees chairman Randy King said in a statement released the evening of Dec. 15. “We look forward to reclaiming our rightful place on this list, which will enable us to qualify for federal programs long denied to our people. To be denied the ability to partner with the federal government on housing, health care, educational, and economic justice initiatives is no longer tolerable.
“This recognition comes after years of anguish and frustration for many members of our nation, living and deceased. As Indian people, even though we've maintained who we are for generations, and surrounded by some of the wealthiest communities in the country, perhaps this recognition will help some of our neighbors better understand us and foster a new mutual respect."
The statement by King and other tribe leaders made no mention of any casino plans.
The Interior Department’s BIA office said the tribe had met seven criteria for federal recognition, including that the Shinnecock’s have been “continuously identified as an American Indian entity since 1900,” and provided a list of its members who are descendants of “and historical Indian tribe.”
The tribe has called Southampton home since 1703, the government said. It has 1,066 tribal members.
The decision now begins a 90-day comment period, though that could be extended to six months.
An industry official cautioned it will take some monumental steps for the Long Island tribe to ever hope of building a casino off its ancestral lands.
Bennett Liebman, who founded the racing and wagering think tank at Albany Law School, said the tribe faces “two massive problems" for an off-reservation casino. The first is a U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this year in a case involving the Narragansett Indians in Rhode Island, in which the court said the U.S. Department of Interior cannot take land into trust for any tribe recognized by the federal government after 1934. Such land-to-trust steps are key for tribes to be able to build a casino off-reservation.
“Taking land-to-trust outside whatever their reservation is has become next to impossible," Liebman said, “unless someone fixes it."
That someone would have to be Congress, and there have been some initial steps in December in the Senate with approval of a bill in a committee to reverse the Supreme Court decision.
Secondly, Liebman noted the crackdown by the Bush White House on permitting tribes to build casinos off-reservation. Such moves have to be approved by the Department of Interior, and Liebman noted that only three casinos – with just one in the past 15 years – have been permitted to get an off-reservation casino.
“Until the Obama administration changes that policy, it’s very difficult to see a casino off-reservation," he said.
While some Indian casino proponents believe the Obama administration will reverse course to permit off-reservation casinos, there has also been growing pressure on the president, especially from some members of Congress from the West, not to loosen the standards.
“It’s difficult legally and it’s difficult politically," Liebman said. “If this gets done, it will take a very long time."