Matrilineal mamas get Seneca Nation to halt major payment to New York state
Never underestimate the power of an angry mother.
After intense, yet reasoned, backlash from the Mothers of the Seneca Nation and other community members, the tribe’s leadership has quickly pumped the brakes on the tribe’s announced plans to settle hundreds of millions of dollars in disputed casino-related fees with the state of New York.
The matrilineal group, which holds great influence under traditional Seneca cultural and political ideology, had been urging the tribe to wait to pay the state until the Biden administration’s U.S. Department of the Interior had an opportunity to weigh in on the legality of the tribe’s gaming compact.
The compact, which went into effect in 2002 and is set to expire in 2023, contains a 7-year extension provision that current Interior officials have said they want to review under terms of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.
According to a letter sent recently to the tribe’s leadership by Thomas Cunningham, the National Indian Gaming Commission’s chief compliance officer, some terms of the agreement may be onerous to the tribe.
“The State appears to be receiving a revenue share that equates to a significant percentage of the Nation’s net revenues,” Cunningham wrote in part, adding that terms of the initial compact appear “long since complete, yet the percentage of revenues the Nation is required to pay the State remain unchanged.”
Mothers of the Seneca Nation said current Seneca Nation President Matthew Pagels was foolish and wrong on Jan. 12 to agree to pay the state a massive amount of money under the disputed extension terms.
As a result of Pagels’ agreement with Democratic New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, $470 million of the tribe’s casino monies are now being held in escrow — and no one knows for sure how long they could be kept there.
Pagels announced the settlement via social media, alongside his stated belief that a settlement would allow the tribe to negotiate in good faith an improved compact with the state.
The mothers claimed that Pagels was misguided to issue the statement via social media with a lack of community input, especially considering Interior’s signals that its current leadership thinks the extension of the onerous terms of the original compact may be problematic in some way. If the federal government comes to an official conclusion that’s supportive of the tribe, it could save the Senecas millions — if not hundreds of millions — of dollars.
Public words against Pagels were not enough to get him to reconsider, but the filing of lawsuits seems to have played a factor.
In late January, former Executive Director of the Seneca Gaming Authority Marie Williams filed with the Seneca Nation Court a challenge to the legality of the agreement.
Williams’ filing focused on so-called assessed costs within the settlement agreement, arguing that the costs clearly went beyond the provisions of the compact. She further alleged that Pagels had intentionally hidden the costs within the agreement.
The concepts raised in her suit would not likely have been a surprise to the tribe’s current leadership, as such costs have been disputed by various Seneca tribal leaders for close to a decade.
“The crux of my legal filing has to do with years of disputed billings that have been consistently denied by five administrations,” Williams explained in a statement last weekend. “President Pagels’ settlement agreement must be nullified as release of these disputed funds, that pertain to the New York State Police and New York State Gaming Commission, are unjustified expenses and over billings that go beyond the scope of the Nation-State Compact.”
“Not only is payment of these illegal billings problematic, but there is a veil of secrecy around this agreement,” Williams added. “Our own people are not aware of the ‘assessed costs’ that have been rolled in. President Pagels is handing the state several million dollars, none of which are provided for in the Compact.”
In addition to Williams, another tribal citizen, Sue Abrams, filed suit, alleging that the president’s settlement with the state should be nullified for failing to obtain the full tribal council’s consent.
The joint lawsuits appear to have had their intended effect, as on Feb. 12 the Seneca Nation Council passed a resolution that requires a review and determination by the National Indian Gaming Commission as to whether additional revenue sharing payments to New York are legal under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.
Odie Brant Porter, a founder of the Mothers of the Nation, said at a meeting before the council made its decision that $540 million in payments to the state should be amended to require that any future payments be subject to federal review and determination.
An amended resolution was later adopted by the tribe’s full council to prevent all payments to the state until the National Indian Gaming Commission completes a review, which has been ongoing since last September.
In what could be viewed as a bit of a flip flop — albeit one that was deferential to matrilineal leaders — Pagels now appears to agree with the importance of Interior’s continued review.
“The Department of Interior and National Indian Gaming Commission have raised concerns about the legality of the continued revenue share payments under the Seneca Nation’s gaming Compact and commenced a review of the matter several months ago,” Pagels said in a statement. “To date, neither agency has issued an official report, nor taken any legal action. After receiving community feedback, the Nation’s Council approved a resolution to continue holding Compact revenue share payments until the federal review is complete. We hope such a report is finalized expeditiously so our Nation can move forward in charting the future of our gaming operations.”
Meanwhile, the mamas are feeling quite vindicated that their voices were heeded.
“The Mothers of the Seneca Nation will continue to stay active to ensure that the actions of our officials promote the betterment of our people and our future generations,” Porter said in a statement after the council reversed course.
Williams, too, is pleased the settlement was halted and that the advice of the matrilineal leaders was taken.
Williams told Indigenous Wire that before she filed her lawsuit, she specifically asked Pagels where he stood on the status of the agreement, and his was response to her was that he wasn't planning on doing anything with it and just letting it be.
Williams also said she asked Pagels why he would include the assessed costs in the agreement, and his reply was that the tribe’s council wanted them in there, yet some council members did not appear on board with that explanation.
One council member said “he was he really wasn't sure, other than the fact they wanted to clean up anything outstanding with New York state, so they could get to the table and start talking about a new compact,” Williams said.
Williams said the overall problem amounts to what she believes is some inexperience on behalf of the tribe’s current leadership — and a dependence on lawyers who may not fully comprehend the tribe’s best interests.
“President Pagels is young and does not have the vision or courage to lead our nation on his own, so he turns to council and goes with the majority, and of course advice from the nation's General Counsel Michelle Mitchell,” Williams said.
“In and around 2016 to 2018, Ms. Mitchell tried to advise us to just pick some names from the billings and give her an amount to pay the state,” Williams shared. “We told her, ‘Absolutely not.’ However, there was a different president and leaders at the time who were seasoned and could not be so easily fooled.”
Williams said that the tribe going forward needs to include “the people who are on the front lines” who “know what is going on and doing the work.”
“They would rather listen to lawyers who do not have any skin in the game,” Williams added.
That the Mothers of the Seneca made a difference in this situation is significant for Williams.
“I am a Seneca Mother and have lived on the reservation my entire life, my family and community are here, and I am very proud to be Seneca,” Williams said. “I want a better community and services for my daughter and community.
“We have fought the state for years, and this isn't anything new. I guess that is why I am so hurt and upset at the more seasoned councilors that have become too content in their position and are not looking out for the best interest of the nation.
“It is not me to not try, so here I am doing my best, and as a Mother, I need to set the example for my daughter who is away at college, because this will become her fight too someday.”
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