A schism between the elected government of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe and the traditional Men’s Council of the People of the Way of the Longhouse—Kanienkehaka Kaianerehkowa Kanonhsesne—has erupted in a dispute over a casino.
The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe’s chiefs posted a statement on the tribe’s website January 27 announcing that the St. Regis Tribal Gaming Commission issued a cease and desist order to the Three Feathers Casino on January 20, ordering the facility to stop gaming operations and shut down. “Under Tribal Law, there are only two licensed gaming properties in Akwesasne,” said Tribal Chief Mark Garrow. “They are the Mohawk Bingo Palace and the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino. Any other gaming facilities are unlicensed and operating illegally.” The cease and desist order itself was not posted, but according to the statement, the order said that Class II and Class III games are lawful “if operated by the Tribe as a Tribal Enterprise or by any other person or entity authorized by the Tribe. The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe has not authorized licensed or designated as agents, any person(s) to operate the Three Feathers Casino.”
The Kanienkehaka Kaianerehkowa Kanonhsesne, The Men’s Council of the People of the Way of the Longhouse, who operate the Three Feathers Casino, has refused to shut down the casino. “The casino is open for business and we will remain open,” Turtle Clan representative Sakoieta (pronounced Sag o wee ta) to the Longhouse Men’s Council told ICTMN. The Longhouse council responded to the cease and desist order with a “Commentary” on January 31, defiantly rejecting the elected government’s authority. “While we claim no dominion over the Territory of Akwesasne, we absolutely reject any claim by you, any agency you attempt to empower or any outside authority that attempts to empower you, to have such either. We genuinely regard only the people to have such authority,” the document says. The commentary was signed by Sakoieta, Wolf Clan representative Rarahkwisere (pronounced La la gwees sulay), and Bear Clan representative Kanaretiio (Gana la deeo).
In their statement, the tribal chiefs did not specify a deadline for the Three Feathers Casino to be shut down or what, if any, steps they might take if the Kanienkehaka Kaianerehkowa Kanonhsesne continues to refuse to close the Three Feathers. The chiefs could not be reached for further comment. Sakoieta told ICTMN that he thought “there would be a riot” if the Longhouse representatives were forced to close the casino’s doors.
The People of the Way of the Longhouse consider themselves to be separate and sovereign. The clan representatives said in their Commentary that the Three Feathers operates on the territory of the Kanienkehaka (“People of the Land of the Flint, known as the Mohawks). “It is not affiliated with St. Regis or any other saint, church, tribe, band, reservation, state or non Ohnkwe Ohnwe (indigenous) nation. We exist and are authorized by our legacy, birthright and internationally recognized history.”
Charles Kader, clerk for the People of the Way of the Longhouse, said that the rift over the casino is emblematic of a larger struggle that includes religious differences and jurisdictional issues. “Disparities exist between enrolled tribal members and non-enrolled Longhouse belief adherents,” Kader said. Some Longhouse members, Kader among them, have removed themselves from the St. Regis membership rolls. “The question that I get asked a lot is why don’t the People of the Way of the Longhouse just go down to the Saint Regis Tribe and get enrolled as members and then change the system from within? The elected tribal and band council systems exist, much as trustees exist within the penal correctional system,” Kader said. He said the elected government serves as a “middle man” between the federal systems and the Akwesasne people. “For those specific reasons of using auxiliary governments as go-betweens, the federal systems are taking advantage of one segment of the population, more secular in position, but in turn are alienating the other end of the culture, that is more deliberate and more cautious about embracing big government trickle-down, which is where the polarization manifests.”
In their prepared statement, the chiefs said that the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Council, as the federally recognized representative of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, “is the only entity that has the authority to legally regulate gaming operations located within the reservation. This authority can be confirmed through the National Indian Gaming Commission, the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Furthermore, the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe is the only governing body in Akwesasne who is a signatory to the [tribal-state] gaming compact, a requirement to conduct Class III gaming under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.”
In the Longhouse response the clan representatives acknowledged that they have not been authorized by the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe to operate Three Feathers and have no intention to be authorized. “We have not and will not seek such authorization. While the St. Regis Tribe MAY be able to regulate and assert certain controls over tribal enterprises, you have no jurisdiction over the Kanienkehaka Kaianerehkowa Kanonhsesne,” they wrote.
Three Feathers Casino opened last July in a 55,000-square-foot building that was formerly used as a gaming facility that was also unlicensed by the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe. In a statement issued when the casino opened, the chiefs criticized the facility for operating with “no oversight from a legitimate gaming commission or an audit conforming to the National Indian Gaming Commission’s standards.” They reiterated their concerns in their posted statement. “We’re not sure just exactly who is involved as financial backers,” Tribal Chief Randy Hart said. “We know for sure that they are not part of the Tribal-State Compact which permits the legal operation of Class III Indian casinos in the Akwesasne Territory.” Hart said no one involved supplying or operating the Three Feathers Casino has undergone any background checks. “Those background checks are integral to maintain the integrity of Indian Gaming,” Hart added.
The chiefs also pointed out that revenues from the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino and the Mohawk Bingo Palace provide funding for the elected government’s programs and services, which include health services, education, prevention programs, a senior’s center, a fire department and an environment department, buy questioned how much money is being generated at Three Feathers and where it’s going. “One of the big questions is ‘Who benefits from the proceeds of unlicensed gaming?’” Tribal Chief Ron LaFrance said. “No matter what the operators of the unlicensed facility may say, we have seen very few tangible benefits in terms of community support.”
Sakoieta told ICTMN that Three Feathers Casino was financed by contributions from Mohawk community members in and around the Akwesasne territory and that no high-powered casino developers or financiers were involved. He said Three Feathers has not generated a lot of money so far, but the plan is to use the profits to benefit the unenrolled community members who don’t receive services from St. Regis. “We’ve been able to help some of our elders and we’re hoping that business will improve and we’ll be able to do more. We just got started around six months ago and it’s been tough going. We had to cut back jobs from around 80 to around 40 and most of the money coming in goes to paying the workers and keeping the place running,” he said.