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St. Regis Mohawk Tribe leaders say they’ll start land claim negotiations with state soon

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AKWESASNE – Leaders of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe said they will begin land claim negotiations with the state within 10 days and will pursue territory they say was granted to them in a proposed 2005 settlement.

The state agreed Tuesday to enter into the talks in exchange for the tribe resuming its paying the state 25 percent of its annual slot machine revenue, 25 percent of which goes to Franklin and St. Lawrence counties. They also agreed to pay half of $60 million they have held in escrow since 2010.

Chief Ron LaFrance, speaking at a press conference Wednesday at the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino, said they will also pursue free SUNY tuition to any tribe member, a $2 million annual payment from the New York Power Authority (NYPA) for the next 35 years and 9 megawatts of low-rate power per year from NYPA, which was included in the deal that died out in 2006 before it reached then-Governor George Pataki’s desk. If they strike a deal, it will end the tribe’s lawsuit to get the land back that has been tied up in court since 1982.

LaFrance said the Tribal Council feels an urgency in light of a rapidly-growing community to reclaim the land, which they say was sold to the state without congressional approval between 1816 and 1845. According to the chief, the tribe will seek the so-called “Bombay Triangle,” 3,000 acres in the town of Brasher, a small area in Rooseveltown, and a large chunk of Fort Covington starting at Pike’s Creek and continuing east into the downtown area.

Mr. LaFrance said the low-cost power is important because it could spark industrial growth in Akwesasne.

“To attract ... light or medium industry, you need a source of power,” he added.

It’s too early to tell how long the negotiations will take once they start, according to LaFrance.

When the talks begin, leaders from St. Lawrence and Franklin counties will be a part of land claim negotiations, according to tribal officials.

“We need to get the counties involved,” Chief Paul Thompson said. “[Tuesday’s] settlement brings them back to the table.”

Tribal leaders would not comment on any action the state may be taking against the Ganienkeh Reservation in Altona. The St. Regis Mohawks stopped making their compact payments in 2010 because they said a casino on that territory violated their gaming exclusivity rights.

“That’s a question you’ll have to ask the governor,” Mr. LaFrance said. “We’re the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe – we deal with the tribe.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office did not return requests for comment.

Part of the new deal involves the state taking 10 percent of their share of the compact payment and dividing it between the other six counties in the exclusivity zone: Jefferson, Clinton, Lewis, Essex, Hamilton, and Warren counties. This means of the $30 million the state will receive as part of Tuesday’s deal, the six counties will each get $375,000.

The state settled last week with the Oneida Nation but struck different terms than with the Mohawks. The Oneida settlement included resolution of land claim and tobacco tax issues in exchange for resuming slot machine revenue sharing. They have now have 25,000 acres held in trust to which they had sued for in court, the Associated Press reported.

Mr. LaFrance said part of the Oneida deal is they now charge tax on their tobacco products, which they keep.

“We don’t plan to address cigarette or tobacco tax at this time,” Mr. LaFrance said.

If Mohawk leaders and the state can reach an agreement on the land issue, it would put to rest a case that Mr. Thompson said this week “has been festering for over 200 years.”

Mr. LaFrance said he “has lived and breathed” the land claim since he was young when his late father, Ron LaFrance Sr., was chief and fought to reclaim the tribe’s ancestral lands. He named several former tribal leaders who fought the same fight but have since died: Leonard Garrow, Sally Benedict, Julius Cook, Lincoln White and Mark Narcissian.

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