What makes a Native American tribe a Native American tribe? In legal terms, it’s simple: they’re recognized by the federal government. In a lot of ways, this is the question at the heart of the trial that has just begun for four operators of the Three Feathers Casino, an ostensibly Indian casino that had operated on the Akwesasne reservation in New York State.
According to prosecutors, the operation was clearly an illegal one. The St. Regis Mohawks are the only federally recognized Indian tribe on the reservation, which means that they’re the only tribe that has the legal permission required to run a casino there, thanks to their compact with the state. Running such a facility requires state approval, as well as approvals by both the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe’s Gaming Commission and the National Indian Gaming Commission.
Laws are for Other People
The men who ran the Three Feathers Casino received none of these approvals. But according to them, they don’t believe they actually need any of them to run a casino on the reservation.
Two of the four men – William Roger Jock and Thomas Angus Square – are elected representatives of the People of the Way of the Long House, which the defense is pointing to as an active tribe that operates on the reservation.
“The key issue is whether the Long House is a government that operates on Akwesasne,” said defense lawyer Lawrence Elman. “Absolutely, 100 percent. They are an Indian tribe.”
According to Elman, the defendants in the case – who also include Akwesasne resident Anthony Laughing Sr. and Joseph Hight of Georgia (who is said to have supplied the gambling machines for the direct operators of the casino) – sought legal opinions from two different lawyers and came away with the impression that they could operate a Class 2 casino, one that offered bingo and poker.
Or, Maybe Not
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Miroslav Lovric said that there was nothing in this story that actually meant the group could run their casino legally.
“It was illegal from start to finish,” Lovric told jurors. “They have as much right to run a gambling operation there as I do.”
According to Lovric, it was Laughing who ultimately ran the casino, as he owned the land it was built on and approved anything that eventually happened there. Prosecutors say that Laughing even approached the St. Regis Mohawk tribal council for permission to run the casino, but was rejected.
But the lawyers for the defendants are trying to ignore these issues. They point out that there was no criminal intent in the creation of the casino: the operators simply wanted to bring some economic activity to an area attorneys compared to a Third World country. They also pointed out that the defendants clearly believed they were acting legally.
“They took every opportunity to advertise this,” attorney Michael McDermott said to jurors. “Is that something you do when you do something criminally?”
Hey, even we know that ignorance of the law is not a defense.
The Three Feathers Casino was originally launched in July 2011. In January 2012, the casino received a “cease and desist” order from the St. Regis Tribal Gaming Commission. Despite that, the casino continued to operate through September, when it finally shut down. It would be that December when the casino’s operators were indicted after a year-long probe into the casino’s activities.
We’re pretty sure we know how this case will turn out, and that “tribe” might be renamed People of the Way of the Big House soon.