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Jul 28, 2008 11:20 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Shinnecocks hit new hurdle in casino location search

Jul 28, 2008 11:20 AM

The Shinnecock Indian Nation might not be able to build a casino at some of the locations that were under consideration in Suffolk County, according to a new rule published by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs in May.

The rule states that all federally recognized tribes must build their gaming facilities within 25 miles of sovereign reservation land. For the Shinnecocks, that would be Shinnecock Neck, the 800-acre reservation south of Old Montauk Highway between the village and the Stony Brook Southampton campus.

A 25-mile radius from the reservation extends all the way to Montauk in the east and stops at the William Floyd Parkway to the west.

BIA spokesperson Nedra Darling said on Tuesday that the 25-mile rule will go into effect at the end of August and explained that she believed the distance was adequate to find a location for the Shinnecock’s proposed gaming and family entertainment complex.

“Obviously, that’s something we’re going to have to consider now,” Tribal Trustee Lance Gumbs said, discussing the news in an interview Monday.

The Shinnecock Nation is not recognized as a tribe by the BIA, part of 
the U.S. Department of the Interior that published the new rule, but a recent court decision has brought them ever closer to the coveted federal status and the gaming rights that come with it.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas C. Platt determined that the Shinnecocks were eligible for federal recognition in 2005, but the road to achieve that status has been long and the process slow, even though reams of evidence exist to prove the tribe’s heritage, according to Mr. Gumbs. In April of this year, the tribe returned to court in another 
bid for recognition, and its leaders successfully argued that the BIA was delaying the process. As a result, a judge ruled that the process will be expedited.

The Shinnecock Nation’s Board of Trustees and other tribal officials met with Suffolk County legislators twice this summer to discuss the possibility of building a large casino and family entertainment complex somewhere in the county, and to determine where that casino might fit after the tribe’s federal recognition is secured. County officials appeared enthusiastic about the potential revenue a gaming facility could bring to the region. The legislators also seemed interested in working with the tribe to find an appropriate location for a casino, possibly in Yaphank or Bellport.

In years past, the Shinnecocks have looked at the idea of building a gaming facility on the South Fork. The nation focused mostly on possibilities for their 76-acre Westwoods property along Newtown Road in Hampton Bays, but a court ruling declared that Westwoods is not sovereign land and eliminated that possibility last year.

Under Supervisor Patrick Heaney, Southampton Town took a firm stance against creating a casino in the town and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to litigate against any future
construction and the Shinnecock’s right to build.

Southampton’s new Town Board under Supervisor Linda Kabot includes two new members and has taken a more diplomatic stance toward the Shinnecocks. The board chose not to appeal Judge Platt’s 2005 ruling and the town has opened communication with tribal
leaders, discussing a variety of issues. The tribe has since said it will appeal the Westwoods decision, but would also be willing to consider alternate sites if
officials were willing to entertain the idea.

Two casino sites the tribe and county considered appropriate for everyone, including Southampton Town, are outside the newly imposed 25-mile radius around the reservation. Those properties include county-owned land in Yaphank and a defunct outlet mall in Bellport along Sunrise Highway. Mr. Gumbs said a casino should be 
close enough for tribal members to commute comfortably, but he has appeared willing to consider both properties.

He hopes that once the Shinnecock tribe is recognized and receives gaming rights, Congress might make an exception to the new rule and allow them to build slightly beyond the 25 mile mark. Previously, tribes could build within 75 miles of reservation land.

Mr. Gumbs said that while a casino would help Suffolk County’s economic development, his concern is benefitting the Shinnecock Nation.

“Everybody can benefit, but let’s not forget what it’s really about,” he said, explaining that the Indian community would not only have new jobs, decent health care and funds to help all levels of infrastructure, but a reinvigorated sense of pride and self worth.

“We’ve lost land, we’ve lost people. Right here in Southampton, we were forbidden to speak our language,” Mr. Bess said, noting that casino revenue would provide resources for cultural projects, such as studying the Shinnecock language and paying for traditional costumes and ceremonial items.

“It’s the American dream,” Mr. Gumbs said, adding, “It’s sort of come full circle.”

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