Planners Network

The Organization of Progressive Planning

Progressive Planning Magazine

Self-Determination and Planning

January 18, 2000 by Administrator in January/February 2000

by Eve Baron

During the winter of 1990 an Associated Press photograph of a young Mohawk man dressed in camouflage fatigues appeared in the New York Times. He was on his belly commando-style, brandishing an assault rifle at some unseen target. The obvious association was war, and observers of the incidents that took place on the Saint Regis Mohawk Reservation in New York in late 1989 and throughout 1990 described what they saw in the language of war.

The Mohawk men and women who lived through the events also depicted their daily struggles as battles, standoffs, and showdowns, in a manner that betrayed a community grown accustomed to nightly gun volleys and burning roadblocks. The events pitted Mohawk against Mohawk. These depictions of battle increased the intensity of the violence and signaled that the conflict was not merely the result of a difference of opinion, but rooted in a much more fundamental, entrenched division over identity and control on the Mohawk reservation.

At the center of the violence were the nine casinos that line Route 37, the main drag on the reservation. Some of the casinos had been in operation for four years in violation of federal and state law. The casino issue divided Mohawks into pros and antis. Supporters pointed to the jobs and revenue the casinos generated in a previously stagnant reservation economy. When confronted with the fact the casinos were illegal, they appealed to the larger issue of Mohawk sovereignty, contending that neither the state nor federal government had the right to dictate what type of business takes place on the reservation. Opponents contended that casino operators were not acting in the interests of the Mohawk nation but as cash-hungry profiteers who exploited sovereignty to enrich themselves. Some opposed the casinos on moral grounds, citing the potential for the increase in social pathologies for a community already wrestling with high rates of substance abuse and crime. Still others opposed the casinos as an affront to Mohawk and Iroquois religious and spiritual traditions, and were concerned about the impact of the droves of non-Indians who flowed onto the reservation every night in buses from Ontario and Quebec and who came away with one-dimensional views of Mohawk life.

And so the violence began. Antis constructed roadblocks on either end of Route 37 to stem the flow of gamblers. Pros set fire to the barricades. Opposing groups menaced each other with baseball bats and bulldozers. Individuals became targets of assaults and hijacks. The guns came out and the violence escalated, culminating in two deaths and the arrival of state troopers and the National Guard to bring order to the reservation.

Land Development and Sovereignty

The protracted battle among the Mohawks over gambling is both a unique and a ubiquitous story in Indian Country. The story is unique in its explosively violent nature and in the fact that the conflict took place while the illegal casinos were already a fact on the ground. The story is familiar, though, because of deeper questions of identity and sovereignty that mark an Indian nation’s consideration of development strategies. Almost every decision made on the reservation is permeated with concerns about sovereignty and Indian identity. Development decisions are especially significant because of the relationship between development and the land base; development by its very nature is exploitative and draws concerns about the physical and spiritual deterioration of the land, which is the spatial expression of Indian sovereignty.

The fight over casinos at Saint Regis illustrates the obstacles to successful planning on some reservations. Issues of control, representation, and participation are far from resolved. At Saint Regis, as elsewhere, opposition to what is perceived as a federally-imposed, non-traditional form of government is strong, and consequently there is not full representation or adequate support for governmental decisions. Instead, two forms of government, one traditional and one designed by the federal government, operate side-by-side on the reservation. Although only the formally-elected tribal council is recognized by state and federal authorities, many Mohawks question its authority and its representation of  Mohawk identity.

The concept of identity is central to reservation planning. At Saint Regis, some pros argued that the casinos were a by-product of Mohawk sovereignty and thus represented no threat to Mohawk identity. Antis, on the other hand, argued that casinos violated the Code of Handsome Lake (a traditional religion based on the teachings of a Seneca prophet) and compromised Mohawk identity.

Land tenure, even though it is also central in the configuration of Indian identity, complicates planning for Indian communities. Land tenure implies a commitment to the land even when that land has deteriorated considerably. At Saint Regis, the land and water are severely contaminated from plant runoff. Despite the fact that the local Reynolds plant cut its fluoride emissions in 1980, cattle raised at St. Regis continue to die of fluoride poisoning. PCBs from the local GM foundry have contaminated the groundwater to the extent that farming is impossible, drinking water must be imported, and residents have been warned not to consume home-grown produce. A wildlife pathologist with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation called the Mohawk community “one of the worst PCB-polluted sites in North America.” The federal Environmental Protection Agency has ordered the Reynolds and Alcoa aluminum plants to clean up river pollutants in the area. The GM plant was deemed a Superfund cleanup site in 1990. The environmental crisis at St. Regis continues today, rendering traditional employment or even subsistence impossible. For a community wedded to the land, and committed to its stewardship, there are few options for economic development. If there is no capital to reacquire land, options are even fewer.

The illegal casinos at Saint Regis were shut down. Now, nearly ten years later, the Mohawks have opened a new casino. This one is legal, although it by no means has the full support of the community. No economic, environmental, or social impact analysis had been performed before it opened, but studies had been solicited by the non-Indian management company to calculate projected revenue and employment. Given an operation with 96 table games and an unspecified number of video gaming terminals, gross annual revenues are expected to reach $100 million. This seemed attractive to the tribal council, which had been carrying millions of dollars of debt for several years, and which complained of a 60% unemployment rate.

Dilemmas of Economic Development

The Mohawk history is quite different from that of the Oneida in Wisconsin, or that of the Choctaw, or that of the Navajo. But all tribal governments face the same responsibilities. Since the late 1960s, elected tribal councils have been building their capacity to manage reservation affairs, including their economic and social development. The relinquishment of control by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and decentralization of federal intervention programs guaranteed the institutionalization of Indian governments, as they were called upon to manage more and more community services and community decisions. Consequently, reservation governments must respond to needs for both economic growth and community stability. This rests in part on being able to represent a collective identity. More and more, policy enacted by reservation governments affects the everyday lives of those living on reservations. Economic development is a key aspect of this intervention.

The goal of  “self-determination” in the current federal Indian policy is no longer adequate. The concept of Indian self-determination was originally intended to be limited to tribal lands and people only. But now Indian governments are the entities pursuing options for self-determination. And they are probably now freer to pursue more options for economic development than those limited to a community base. Such developments are more inclusive and, as in the instance of Indian gaming, engage outside investors, employees, planners, and patrons. Indian governments must now compete for advantage in the same global economy as neighboring non-Indian governments, and bear responsibility for protecting sovereignty and constructing identity and community.  And they must do it with more pronounced historic handicaps.


Eve Baron recently received a Ph.D. in Urban Planning and Policy Development from Rutgers University. Her dissertation was entitled “Public Participation and the Choice of Casinos as Development Strategy in Iroquois Nations.”

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