New casino opens on NY Mohawk reservation

MICHAEL VIRTANEN - Associated Press

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — A group of Mohawks has quietly opened a casino on the tribe's reservation along New York's northern border with some 400 electronic gambling machines and plans to expand and host poker games, drawing criticism from tribal leaders responsible for the established casino and bingo hall located nearby.

The Three Feathers Casino operates in a commercial building six miles down Route 37 from the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino, which has electronic slot machines and table games under a state compact. The new venture is separate and has no similar state or federal approvals.

Three Feathers organizers, from the Men's Council of the People of the Way of the Long House, say they established their own gaming commission last year that set regulations. "By no means is anyone looking for any confrontation," spokesman Chaz Kader said, adding that would be negative for everyone on the reservation.

Kader cited economic development efforts and plans to use 20 to 25 percent of revenue to support the Long House, including help for elders in the community, as reasons for opening Three Feathers.

"It's employing over 100 of our local people," he said.

Open daily from 11 a.m. to midnight, it began operating July 13, has had incremental increases in customers and had 500 visitors its second Sunday, Kader said. There's no alcohol, but smoking is allowed.

The Akwesasne casino, with some 1,600 Las Vegas-style slot machines and 22 table games including blackjack, craps, roulette and poker, is operated around the clock by the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe under a New York compact that calls for sharing 25 percent of profits from the electronic slot machines with the state. St. Regis tribal officials said the only two "legitimate" gaming properties in Akwesasne are their casino and their Mohawk Bingo Palace, noting regulatory oversight by the New York State Racing and Wagering Board and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Gaming Commission along with the National Indian Gaming Commission.

On a reservation with factions and some history of tensions, including over whether the original casino should have opened in 1999, the new enterprise drew criticism from the tribal government responsible for the first casino and bingo hall, saying their profits already support programs for tribal members.

"The unlicensed gaming facility cannot compare to our legal casinos in terms of safety, gaming integrity and regulatory oversight," St. Regis Tribal Chief Mark Garrow said. In a statement, the St. Regis tribal government said the new casino's suppliers, operators and financiers had not undergone background checks in accordance with the federal law and they are all under investigation.

Men's Council members told KahnawakeNews.Com that their gaming regulations meet or exceed the others and they'd like to see all casinos on Mohawk territory follow them. Kader said the regulations are based on the foundational great law of peace, considered a superseding document to the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Charter, that can apply to other areas and that specifies revenue sharing and doesn't include the state compact.

"As the public becomes more confident with this extra venue, we've seen word of mouth and satisfied gaming players liked what they saw and would be back," Kader said.

According to state gambling officials, Congress in 1988 permitted federally recognized tribes to regulate traditional forms of Indian gaming in conjunction with the federal commission or by themselves. They include bingo, pull tabs, lotto, punch boards, tip jars and certain card games, with all other gaming subject to regulation set under state-tribal compacts.

Kader said the new casino's machines operate "in an electronic bingo environment," where they are operating on a single computer server that has different architecture and software than self-contained slot machines. He said long-term plans include adding more machines and that poker is being discussed and that's likely, but with players betting against each other and not against the house.

Gamblers will get individual financial statements about winnings, but any reporting for tax purposes will be up to them, he said.

Lee Park, spokesman for the Racing & Wagering Board, said there is no compact between the state and the Mohawk group that opened Three Feathers and so it is not under the board's regulatory oversight.

The state board regulates four other Indian casinos, including the Oneidas' Turning Stone in central New York at Verona and three Seneca casinos in western New York at Salamanca, Niagara Falls and Buffalo.

The St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council last year stopped sharing Akwesasne Mohawk Casino revenue with the state, claiming the gambling compact provision that gave them exclusive seven-county rights to install and operate slot machines had been violated. Tribe spokesman David Staddon said the case is in mediation.

The Mohawks' outstanding state liability now is $17.7 million from a year of non-payments, said state Budget Division spokesman Morris Peters. The Senecas, who haven't made payments for more than two years, have a state liability of $288.3 million, he said.