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Shinnecocks become 565th tribe in U.S.

The Shinnecock Indian Nation holds a powwow. (July

The Shinnecock Indian Nation holds a powwow. (July 8, 2007) Credit: Newsday File / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

The Shinnecock Indian Nation became the nation's 565th federally recognized tribe Tuesday, an announcement that set off a wave of bittersweet celebration and an urgency to start the work lifting its collective fortunes.

The Shinnecocks "met all seven of the mandatory criteria for federal acknowledgment," the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs ruled Tuesday.

Within hours, tribal leaders at the Shinnecocks' Powwow grounds Tuesday spoke of plans to bolster an existing tribal government infrastructure with a court system and law-enforcement force, improved roadways, health care, and environmental and economic programs.

"It's a great day," said tribal chairman Randy King, adding the improved fortunes of the Shinnecocks will work their way beyond the 750-acre reservation. "We want to better the surrounding community by doing better ourselves."

But even as the tribe sought to downplay the importance of a casino amid the larger news of recognition, work continued behind the scenes. In recent weeks the tribe has been negotiating a deal with the New York Hotel Workers Union to allow organizing at any tribal casino, sources close to the talks said.

 

Possibilities for casino, college

And after the tribe met with his staff last month to begin work on a revenue-sharing "compact," Gov. David A. Paterson Tuesday said he had met with Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano a few weeks ago to discuss casino development at the Nassau Coliseum. Paterson pointed to legal hurdles of a casino off the tribe's reservation that may "automatically eliminate" the idea, and equal challenges to putting one in the Hamptons. "We will explore with them ways in which they might be able to partner with us and bring revenues into the state," he said.

Concerning sites for a casino, former tribal trustee Fred Bess said, "Everything's on the table. . . . We're a lot further ahead than we were a year ago."

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy said the issue now was "when and where the Shinnecocks will seek to build a casino." He said he'd like to see it in Suffolk.

State Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) said he has "long advocated for a casino to be built at Belmont racetrack because it would mean more jobs, more tourism and more revenue for state and local governments. I urge Governor Paterson to move forward on this issue."

While the tribe gains the right to open a casino on its reservation, it is expected to leverage land claims for some 3,000 acres primarily in Southampton, including the Stony Brook Southampton campus and Shinnecock Hills golf course, to negotiate a pact to locate a casino off reservation.

Tribal leaders said they have approached Assemb. Fred Thiele Jr. (I-Sag Harbor) about the prospect of turning the recently mothballed Southampton campus into a tribal college, and noted their 3,000-acre legal land claim in Southampton includes the college grounds.

Thiele confirmed the discussions. "I consider it to be a viable option to explore as we look at the future of that campus," he said. "For a long time, the Shinnecocks have had a special attachment not just to that land, but to the college."

Lauren Sheprow, a Stony Brook spokeswoman, said the university is forming a task force to study educational uses for the Southampton location, and, "In that context, we'd welcome the chance to explore options with the Shinnecock Nation."

 

Much-awaited news

Tribal leaders received a call from the Bureau of Indian Affairs affirming the decision at 11:02 a.m. Tuesday. Tribal members gathered in the Shinnecock community center to celebrate in song.

"It was a joyous moment," said senior trustee Lance Gumbs.

The ruling, which still faces a 30-day comment period, immediately increases the standing of the tribe. "We are placing ourselves on equal footing with the United States government," said trustee Gordell Wright. "We owe gratitude to our elders."

The decision was set in motion last year, when federal District Court Judge Joseph Bianco approved a stipulation agreement mandating a decision on the Shinnecocks' status by last December. After a more than 31-year "odyssey" involving some 40,000 documents as proof, King said the process was "mind-boggling."

"When this process started I was 7 years old," said trustee Wright. "I'm 38 now. It's important to acknowledge the people who worked on this issue."

Tribal lawyer Marguerite Smith added, "Sometimes justice is delayed. . . . We worked hard. Whoever tried to deny us could not."

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