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In an extraordinarily broad declaration of Indian land rights, a Northern District judge has held that the Cayuga Nation can buy up property in its former Central New York homeland, declare it “Indian country” and operate a gambling hall immune from local building, zoning and tax laws. U.S. District Judge David N. Hurd’s first-of-its-type ruling affords the Indian nation a chance to gain through real estate purchases that which it could not directly gain through litigation: control over land it once occupied. In a decision three years ago, the Cayugas were awarded nearly $248 million in damages for the wrongful appropriation of their land in violation of an 1838 treaty. Senior U.S. Judge Neal P. McCurn, however, refused to order all non-Cayugas ejected from the land. This left the Cayugas with a lot of money — pending an appeal — but not the land they wanted most. Now, the Cayugas are buying some of that property and arguing that their purchase transforms the land into Indian country that cannot be regulated by local authorities. Judge Hurd said in a decision released late last week that the Cayugas are right. The municipalities involved are preparing an appeal to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and the Cayugas are in the process of converting a former auto parts store into a hall for high-stakes bingo. The Cayugas expect to take in $14,000 to $17,000 daily, tax free, at the gambling parlor. They intend to operate 50 electronic bingo machines. Their tribal relatives, the Seneca Cayugas of Oklahoma, have purchased land in nearby Seneca Falls and have similar plans. Cayuga Indian Nation of New York v. Village of Union Springs, 5:03-CV-1270, resulted from a clash between an historically cheated tribe of American Indians and the residents of a lakeside community 35 miles west of Syracuse. Union Springs is a small village located on the northern shores of Cayuga Lake. It is included in the 64,015 acres of Cayuga ancestral land that was illegally sold to New York state. Those improper conveyances resulted in the $240 million award against the state. The damages award is on appeal to the 2nd Circuit. Last year, the Cayugas spent $105,000 to buy a vacant Napa auto parts store in Union Springs and promptly secured a license from the National Indian Gaming Commission to operate a bingo hall. Union Springs sought a temporary restraining order to halt the conversion. Judge Hurd found that when an Indian tribe holds a treaty-recognized title to land — as it does here — only Congress can strip the tribe of title to a reservation. “Since Congress has not divested the Cayugas of their title to the land claim area, it stands to reason that the reservation status of that land remains in place to this day,” Hurd wrote. “Moreover, a formal reservation, as is the property here, falls within the definition of Indian Country, and such status is not precluded when a tribe holds fee title to the land.” COMMUNITY IMPACT The court wasn’t persuaded that the impact on the community, especially if the Cayuga nation is permitted to ignore fire and safety codes, trumps other concerns. “[I]t is clear that the overriding federal goals of promoting tribal self-sufficiency and economic development outweigh the interests set forth by defendants,” Hurd wrote. “Moreover, Congress knows how to legislate to allow such regulation, but has failed to do so.” Hurd’s ruling adds a new and apparently unprecedented wrinkle to the lengthy dispute over how to make amends to Indian nations improperly divested of their most cherished resource — land. “Declaring land ‘Indian country’ allows them to have Class I and Class II gaming without the need for state or local permission,” said attorney Raymond J. Heslin of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthall. Heslin, who works in the firm’s Manhattan office, represents the Cayugas along with Stephen L. Brodsky. “They can set up electronic gaming on any land they acquire and are unaffected by local building, zoning, tax and traffic [concentration] laws. It’s like a sovereign nation being created by the state,” he said. Class II gaming includes bingo and other games of chance. It does not include casino games and slot machines. They are Class III category games that can be offered by the Indian nations only when there is a compact with the state. Alan R. Peterman of Hiscock & Barclay in Syracuse, N.Y., counsel for the municipal defendants, agreed the decision is exceptionally broad. “It allows the tribe, the nation, to construct whatever they want on the property, including a bingo hall,” said Peterman, who is co-counsel on the case with Judith M. Sayles. “This is right in the village, 300 yards from a high school.” Peterman said he will argue on appeal that there are “exceptional circumstances” — the impact on the local quality of life, law enforcement and traffic — that permit the village to regulate activity on the property. Heslin, however, said the Cayugas have every intention of being good neighbors and no intention of exploiting their sovereign status in Union Springs. “The Cayugas never wanted to come in and just steamroll over everybody,” he said. “Despite the fact that we don’t have to comply with the local laws — the laws they used to try to put us out of business — we have adopted the international building code, which is much more comprehensive than the state code.”

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