GREENFIELD PARK – Last month, the federal government announced that Long Island's Shinnecock Indian Tribe meet the criteria for official recognition — news which has given the Western Mohegan Tribe, which owns the former Tamarack Resort property, new hopes for ending their ongoing tax-battle with Ulster County, and to eventually move forward with their plans for a gaming hall.
The Shinnecock Indians, along with the Unkachaug Indian Nation, were judged to have met tribal sovereignty criteria by U.S. District Court Judge Kiyo Matsumoto in October. The decision states that as long as a tribe meets the common-law test for being a tribe — that the group be "of the same or similar race," "united in a community under one leadership or government," and "inhabiting a particular, though ill-defined territory" — it is immune from taxation and litigation of any entity except the United States government.
The members of the Western Mohegan Tribe believe that this ruling — and the subsequent ruling on the Shinnecock's federal recognition and their forthcoming efforts to build a casino — will benefit them as well.
"We want to work with everybody, all the communities," said the Western Mohegans' Chief Ron Roberts. "What the judge said is that we are sovereign. We don't have to abide by anybody's rules. Even the non-recognized [tribes] have a certain amount of sovereign immunity. They're not sovereign from the United States federal government, but they are from state and locals. That's why the state can't do anything to the Shinnecocks."
Currently, the tribe is embroiled in a legal dispute with Ulster County over tax money the county claims it's owed. Since 2006, the tribe has sought to have the county officially exempt their property from taxation, and a sticky legal battle has ensued because of the county's inability and lack of authority to officially recognize an Indian tribe. The Western Mohegans say that they have a number of government documents proving their legitimacy as a tribe, as well as the DNA tests to back it up. They believe these recent rulings may be the legal precedent they need to prove their case once and for all.
"The court also said non-recognized tribes can be held immune by a court if it meets the common-law test — which we've been fighting for all our lives," said Roberts.
The group also plans to cite another ruling from a 2005 case between the State of Michigan and the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community. The judge ruled in favor of the Indians, spelling out the tribe's tax exempt status flatly: "Land held in fee simple by [the] Indian tribe or its members was not subject to Michigan property tax," because of the treaty it had signed prohibiting the Indians' involuntary removal.
Indian lands are typically impossible to tax, for the simple reason that it would be impossible to enforce a tax lien against the property. If a non-Indian citizen refuses to pay his or her property taxes, the local, county or state government would be in a position to place a lien on the property. If that person continued to refuse to pay, the property could be seized and sold at auction. But Indian groups typically have their lands granted to them by treaty or federal statute, which cannot be superseded by local law. Attempting to enforce a tax lien on Indian lands, therefore, would constitute an attempted removal from these lands.
Though the Western Mohegan Tribe has no treaty with the federal government, they claim that such a treaty isn't necessary for proof of their tribe's legitimacy. Treaties are typically established when two sovereign factions dispute the ownership of a particular stretch of land. And, since the Mohegans have never been at war with the U.S., Great Britain, or other colonial powers, they have never had such a dispute, and thus, no treaty.
Now that the Shinnecock Indians will be moving forward with their own plans for a casino somewhere in New York State, it may be only a matter of time before the Western Mohegans' dispute with Ulster County is settled in a similar fashion.