Voting on casinos postponed

News Staff Reporter

The Feb. 28 deadline for a vote on Seneca Indian gambling casinos has been postponed indefinitely, Cyrus M. Schindler, president of the Seneca Nation of Indians, said Sunday.

"Compact negotiations with New York State are continuing," Schindler said. "But, at this point in time, my hope for a referendum by Feb. 28 cannot be reached.

"There simply is not enough time even if there were a compact in hand, which there is not, to have the necessary informational meetings on our reservations so our people understand what they will be voting on," the Seneca president said.

Schindler said no referendum date will be set for Cattaraugus and Allegany Indian Reservations "until we have a signed compact agreement with New York State to present to the nation."

Tyler Heron, a former tribal councilor who is now the editor and publisher of the Rez Rag, an independent newspaper on the Seneca territories, believes the "time for Seneca casinos is running out."

"If there were a referendum held on the Allegany Reservation today," Heron said, "I know for a fact that it would never pass.

"On the Cattaraugus (Reservation)," Heron predicted, "I think it would be a split vote at best.

"Chances of casinos being approved by our people become slimmer as time wears on," he added.

Schindler offered few details of the ongoing negotiations. But he did confirm that there have been exchanges of proposals between the state and the Seneca Nation and that "what we are proposing is pretty much what was agreed to in the (memorandum of understanding) we reached with (Gov. George E. Pataki) months ago."

Last June 20, Pataki and the Seneca Nation announced they had reached a deal to bring three Las Vegas-style casinos to Western New York - one each to Buffalo and Niagara Falls and a third site to be determined by the Senecas.

Since that time, the casino issue has faced obstacles both on and off the reservation.

The specter of another roadblock was raised Saturday by Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who called on Pataki to tie any gambling deal to a settlement of various land claims around the state.

One of those land claims has been made by the Senecas for 18,600 acres covering Grand Island and several smaller islands in the Niagara River.

It is now awaiting a decision by U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara.

The federal government, which is a plaintiff with the Senecas in the Grand Island land claim, dropped its attempt to make the 6,000 individual property owners there liable in the lawsuit. The Senecas, however, did not.

Schindler reiterated his opposition to the link.

"I have said from the beginning of our negotiations that the Grand Island land claim would not be on the table with casino negotiations," he said.

"If New York State insists on the Grand Island land claim being there, all negotiations for a casino are off."

The state law legalizing casinos on Indian land stipulated that in addition to the three casinos in Western New York, three more could be built in the Catskills.

The St. Regis Mohawks, who are negotiating to open a casino in the Catskills, have maintained they would not negotiate away their land claim for 15,000 acres adjoining their Akwesawsne territory in Franklin and St. Lawrence counties, along with several islands in the St. Lawrence River.

Meanwhile, Pataki's announcement Saturday of an "agreement in concept" to settle a long-standing land claim by the Oneida Nation, which is operating the successful Turning Stone Casino Resort in Verona, apparently is far from a done deal.

The agreement to settle for $500 million, along with several tax concessions, was made between Pataki and Ray Hulbritter, leader of the Oneidas of New York.