By DANNY HAKIM
Published: December 15, 2009
The Obama administration said Tuesday that the Shinnecock Indians on Long Island meet the criteria for federal recognition, signaling the end of a 30-year court battle and clearing a path for the tribe to pursue its plans for a casino in New York City or its suburbs.
The announcement all but assures that the 1,066-member Shinnecock Indian Nation will receive formal federal recognition, though a public-comment period of up to six months must be held before the final order is issued.
The news could mean significant changes for the relatively poor tribe, most of whose members live on 800 acres in Southampton, N.Y., not far from some of Long Island’s wealthiest communities and expansive celebrity-owned estates.
Shinnecock leaders have long argued that a casino could turn around the tribe’s fortunes.
“This recognition comes after years of anguish and frustration for many members of our Nation, living and deceased,” Randy King, chairman of the Shinnecock trustees, said in a statement, adding, “Perhaps this recognition will help some of our neighbors better understand us and foster a new mutual respect.”
Once it is federally recognized, the tribe would be entitled to build a “Class II” casino on its land that could have thousands of video slot machines but no table games. That has worried some local officials because of the implications that such a casino would have for traffic and tourism in the wealthy resort areas.
Tribal leaders have said they would prefer to negotiate with the state and federal government to build a or Class III casino on land elsewhere that would have table games and could be more lucrative both for the state and the tribe.
Tribal officials have expressed interest in a variety of sites for a casino, including other locations on Long Island or at Aqueduct racetrack in Queens or Belmont, in Nassau.
The state would get none of the proceeds from a Class II casino built on the tribe’s reservation, but would almost certainly insist on a percentage of any proceeds if it permitted construction elsewhere of a bigger casino — which could generate billions of dollars in revenue.
Gov. David A. Paterson had supported the tribe’s bid and urged the Obama administration to recognize it.
“As Governor Paterson has said, federal acknowledgment of the Shinnecock Indian Nation was long overdue,” said Morgan Hook, a spokesman for the governor. “This is a proud day for the Shinnecock. Governor Paterson looks forward to continued government-to-government relations with the Nation, and will continue to support their efforts to achieve full federal recognition.”
The difficult fiscal situation may bring new urgency to casino discussions.
State Senator Craig Johnson, a Long Island Democrat whose district encompasses Belmont, said the state should immediately begin serious talks about the issue.
“The first topic I want to discuss is how Belmont fits into this,” he said.
Gordell Wright, a tribal trustee, said in a statement that “there is no reason to wait for the recognition process to end, and every reason to act now so we can resolve these matters sooner than later.”
Tuesday’s announcement capped an arduous effort by the tribe, which had to meet seven criteria for approval. According to the Interior Department, the Shinnecock tribe needed to demonstrate that it was “continuously identified as an American Indian entity since 1900” and able to trace its origins back much further than that.
It was also required to establish that it was a viable political entity and that its current members are not members of another federally recognized tribe.
“I think their case was very strong,” said George T. Skibine, the acting principal deputy assistant secretary for Indian affairs. “This was not difficult,” he added. “They met those pretty straightforwardly, fairly and squarely. I don’t think there is much room, based on the evidence, for concluding otherwise.”
Mr. Skibine made the decision after Larry Echo Hawk, the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, recused himself from the matter because his brother had a role in representing the Shinnecock tribe.
The tribe’s history goes back hundreds of years; both the Dutch and English skirmished over the area in the 1600s, but the tribe remained there and was granted a 1,000-year lease by British colonists in the town of Southampton in 1703 — a deal that was later renegotiated.
In 1792, partly as a means of settling land disputes with the town farmers, the Shinnecock Indians began their current practice of annually electing three tribal trustees, according to John A. Strong, a retired Long Island University professor who has written three books about the Indians of Long Island.
Other chapters of the tribe’s lore are tragic. In the 1870s, a number of the tribe’s young men died when they were part of a salvage operation of a ship called the Circassian, which sank before they could return to shore.
The tribe’s court fight for federal recognition dates to 1978, when the tribe filed a petition for recognition.
In 2006, when it still had no answer, the tribe sued the Interior Department, saying that the agency had failed to process its request in a reasonable amount of time. Earlier this year, it entered into a settlement with the Interior Department that required a preliminary ruling by the end of this year.
The tribe is also hoping to resolve more than $1 billion worth of land disputes in the Hamptons, including its claim to the site of the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, which has played host to the U.S. Open several times.
The tribe paid at least $1.74 million to seven different lobbying firms since 2005 as part of its recognition effort, according to public records.
As part of that lobbying and public relations campaign, the tribe hired Michael McKeon, Gov. George E. Pataki’s former communications director, and Alan Wheat, a former Missouri congressman, as well as Fleishman-Hillard, a Washington public relations firm.