The recognition moves the Shinnecock Indian tribe a step closer to operating a casino, although tribal leaders Tuesday declined to discuss gambling in any way.
"This is the most historic moment in Shinnecock history," trustee Lance Gumbs told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from the tribe's community center on its reservation on eastern Long Island. "Any discussion of a casino is a secondary thought."
Randy King, another tribal trustee, said people were hugging each other and crying after word came from federal authorities shortly after 11 a.m. "We are so happy the government has taken this action," he said.
Tribal leaders noted the Shinnecocks have been trying for decades to obtain federal recognition. That effort kicked into high gear in 2003, when they first tried to open a casino on tribal land in Southampton. The tribe was told that formal recognition from the Bureau of Indian Affairs is required before operating gaming facilities.
The Shinnecock must now await a 30-day comment period after the announcement is posted in the Federal Register. After that, recognition is expected to become permanent.
Bureau of Indian Affairs official George T. Skibine said the department did not receive any comments following its decision to grant preliminary approval last December.
"We're going to be doing a lot of singing and eating," said trustee Gordell Wright. "This is a proud moment for the Shinnecock people. It's not that we haven't always known who we are, but now there's a political decision that finally has us on an equal footing."
About 500 Shinnecock tribal members live in modest homes on a 1,200-acre reservation in Southampton; 700 more members live elsewhere. Nearby, some of the richest people in the world, including Wall Street power brokers and Hollywood celebrities, have sprawling estates worth tens of millions of dollars.
Bureau of Indian Affairs officials reviewed ancestral records and other historical documents of the tribe before determining whether the Shinnecocks met the recognition criteria. The tribe had sought to circumvent the federal approval process by seeking recognition in federal court, but a judge rejected that effort in 2007.
Even with federal recognition, the tribe needs additional federal and state approvals before operating a casino. Federal recognition also makes the Shinnecocks eligible for federal grants and other funding.
Since receiving preliminary federal recognition, numerous locations for a possible Shinnecock casino have been floated.
Belmont Park, just outside New York City, the Nassau Coliseum, as well as a former racetrack and others have been mentioned, although tribal leaders have remained mum about their specific intentions.
When the Shinnecocks broke ground in 2003 on their proposed Southampton casino, town officials raced into federal court and got an injunction to stop it. Since then, Suffolk County officials formed a task force to study the issue.
Gov. David Paterson said he supported the Shinnecock federal recognition effort; the state has recognized the tribe for centuries.
Paterson noted that because of its remote location, the Shinnecock reservation would likely not be a conducive site for a casino. Because the state has a say in whether a casino would be allowed to operate, he is open to negotiating a more suitable location, the governor said.
Lawrence Levy, the head of Hofstra University's National Center on Suburban Studies, said the recognition will force the Shinnecocks to face "complex decisions about everything from environmental and social stewardship to economic partnership with local communities."
The notion of opening a casino in difficult economic times also could affect how the Shinnecock proceed.
Executives at the East Coast Gaming Congress, a national casino conference, met in Atlantic City last month to discuss the large number of casinos operating in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Ohio and West Virginia. In addition, bids are being accepted on operating a new slots parlor at Aqueduct Racetrack in New York City.
Don Marrandino, eastern regional president of Harrah's Entertainment Inc., which operates four of Atlantic City's 11 casinos, said the prospect of a Shinnecock tribal casino in Long Island would not affect Atlantic City's already urgent effort to reinvent itself into a multi-day resort that offers more than gambling.
"We just have to keep focused on what we do in Atlantic City," he said. "We can't worry about what we can't control. Atlantic City must continue to transition itself to a world class entertainment destination."
Two Indian-run casinos in Connecticut did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Associated Press Writer Wayne Parry in Atlantic City and AP Radio Correspondent Julie Walker in New York City contributed to this report.
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