Roberts says decision vindicates his claim
By BERN ZOVISTOSKI
Special to the Sentinel
The drums of optimism are beating in the heart of Granville’s Chief Golden Eagle, the controversial sachem of the Western Mohegan Tribe and Nation, who sees a recent court decision as a basis for proving his longstanding claim that he represents a bona fide Native American tribe.
And if that happens, it would make the tribe’s sprawling resort property in the Catskills tax-exempt, and it might pave the way for the tribe to realize its dream and open a casino there.
Golden Eagle, more familiarly known as Ron Roberts of Route 22, said a judge’s ruling in October that Long Island’s Shinnecock Indian Tribe meets the criteria for official recognition bodes well for his Western Mohegan tribe’s claim of authenticity.
In a cigarette-tax case involving the Shinnecocks and the Unkachaug Indian Nation, U.S. District Court Judge Kiyo Matsumoto decided 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 U.S. government.
Roberts said the Western Mohegan Tribe and Nation meets that test:
“The similarities (to the Shinnecocks’ case) are strong,” he said. “This is what we’ve been saying all along.”
“What the judge said is that we are sovereign,” Roberts said. “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.”
Bernard Wiczer, an attorney in the Chicago area who said he “represents Indians” in their efforts to open casinos, echoed Roberts’ comment, saying:
“It’s not important if the (U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs) says you’re an Indian or not.”
Wiczer said the “common-law test” cited in the Shinnecock case stems from a 1901 Supreme Court case, Montoya v. U.S., and was used during a period before the Department of the Interior began keeping track of all the nation’s tribes.
The Long Island decision, Wiczer said, “is really following law that’s been around for a long time…Montoya laid down the foundation for defining Indians.”
“It’s a lack of understanding about how things work … what happened was that some of the courts got so involved with the fact that there’s a Bureau of Indian Affairs that they believed that was the exclusive way of dealing with Indians, and it wasn’t.”
He said the federal government “wanted to control the tribes so (it) recognized them and gave them handouts and that’s how the government got control over the tribes.”
Recent court cases, he said, “recognize you don’t have to be a federally recognized tribe” to be a legitimate entity.
Wiczer said the Western Mohegans “have the blood of Indians … the distinct markers,” based on expert testing.
“Members of Ron’s tribe have been together forever,” Wiczer maintained. “Historians in Washington called them a tribe. Tribal members have the blood of Indians.”
Roberts’ Western Mohegan tribe bought the Tamarack Lodge in Ulster County in 2001 for $900,000 and for years the tribe has been embroiled in a legal dispute with the county over property tax money the county claims is owed. The Western Mohegans claim they have DNA tests and a number of government documents that prove their legitimacy as a Native American tribe and are thus tax-exempt.
Wiczer said a case involving Ulster County is pending in U.S. District Court in Albany regarding monies the county claims the tribe owes.
When the tribe bought the Tamarack Lodge, he said, it signed a deal with the county that called for a regular payment in lieu of taxes of $25,000 “or a percentage of income (from a casino), whichever is greater.”
When the tribe offered the $25,000, he said “the county treasurer rejected it … and forced the tribe to federal court.”
Wiczer said Ulster County is arguing that the agreement it made with Roberts’ tribe was premised on approval of the tribe by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The tribe doesn’t need that approval, Wiczer maintains, citing a recent court ruling in Michigan.
Unlike other tribes, the Western Mohegans have no treaty with the federal government because they’ve never been at war with the United States. Such treaties established defined reservations for those tribes.
The Western Mohegan tribe claims that a treaty isn’t necessary for proof of their legitimacy.
Initially Roberts said publicly that the tribe would engage in hydroponic farming at the property near Ellenville.
It became clear later that the tribe wanted to establish a casino at the site after Roberts was indicted on federal fraud charges related to documents he filed in support of his claim to be a true Native American. In 2004 Roberts accepted a plea bargain during trial that resulted in a sentence to home detention for six months and five years’ probation, as well as a fine. But Roberts has maintained throughout that his claim of authenticity is true.
Wiczer said New York state could approve a casino for the Western Mohegan tribe without any federal government involvement, and all the complications that would entail.
“Without state approval there can’t be a casino,” Wiczer said. “Because we’re not a Bureau of Indian Affairs tribe we can do things. If the state wants to get a casino going, it can do it through us because they don’t have to deal with the federal government.
Wiczer said the tribe has talked with Gov. David Paterson and “we hope he’ll give it consideration.” The tribe has also talked with some senators and assemblyman that Wiczer said “support us.”
Some deals have already been made to share revenue that would be generated by a casino, including a percentage to the local hospital in Ellenville, Wiczer said.
“Local support is there; it’s really up to the governor,” Wiczer added.
Meanwhile, the struggles of Chief Golden Eagle and his tribe have caught the attention of Hollywood, where plans are still “developing” for a movie comedy based on Roberts. The working title of the film, which reportedly will portray Roberts as “a con man” in a humorous way, is “Chief Ron.” Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment is backing the production, which will be directed by actor-director Justin Theroux. Casting has yet to be announced.