ST. REGIS MOHAWK RESERVATION - There's a new bingo hall open on the Saint Regis Mohawk Reservation, and the elected Tribal Council isn't happy about it.
The Kanienkehaka Charity Bingo hall, a class II gaming operation, is now open on state Route 37 in the building formerly occupied by Billy's Bingo, a mainstay in Akwesasne until it closed in 1995. Bill Sears recently sold the building to the Longhouse for an undisclosed amount.
"That's between me and the Longhouse," he said. "I never talk about money."
Mr. Sears said that when he was operating Billy's, he brought in an average of 422 people for each of its twice-a-day sessions. He expects the new operation to fare just as well. Kanienkehaka Charity Bingo had a soft opening on Saturday, drawing more than 150 players on the day, according to facilities supervisor William Clute. He said there have been many improvements to the building, which has been dormant for more than a decade.
"We've put in a state-of-the-art air system and a new water system," he said, adding that many upgrades have been undertaken to make the facility comfortable and customer-friendly.
"Community members have been suggesting a charity bingo for a long time," said Longhouse Clan Mother Elizabeth Clute. "It's the people that wanted this bingo."
Mr. Sears, she said, has been on board every step of the way.
"He's 100 percent for us," she said.
That may not be true, however, for Akwesasne's Tribal Council - the elected, federally recognized authority on the reservation. The council issued a press release this week condemning all gaming operations other than the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino and the Mohawk Bingo Palace - both owned and operated by the tribe. Kanienkehaka Charity Bingo was not specifically named in the release, and questions submitted to the tribe's press office on Wednesday remained unanswered at press time Thursday.
"Any unlicensed gaming is unregulated, unsupervised and operated without the benefit of any tribal oversight," the release said. "The Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe and the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Gaming Commission cannot guarantee the safety of any patron, the fairness of any game or the integrity of any game at any unlicensed gaming facility."
The release further warned that unlicensed gaming facilities "jeopardize the tribe's ability to provide needed services to the community through gaming revenues."
Longhouse elder and former Tribal Gaming Commissioner Minnie Garrow said there is nothing illegal about running a bingo hall, even without the Tribal Council's permission.
"I've checked all the regulations and rules," Ms. Garrow said at a press conference Thursday. "This bingo hall does not violate any federal or state laws."
The Longhouse represents the traditional leadership in Akwesasne and has been established for hundreds of years, well before the federally recognized Tribal Council came into being.
The goal of Kanienkehaka Charity Bingo, Ms. Garrow said, is to help the community.
"We have people who fall through the gaps," explained Pat Thomas, who is helping to run the facility. "We should be there for them."
Ms. Garrow said the unemployment rate on the reservation is 90 to 95 percent, and the bingo operation will offer employment for more than 100 people. In addition, proceeds from the games will go toward helping Native peoples as well as those in need in the surrounding communities.
Longhouse members at Thursday's press event also noted that they hope to branch out into other areas as well, including organic farming and building or repairing homes, especially for the elderly.
"It's going to start here," Ms. Clute said. "And it's going to branch out."
"That is our way," Ms. Garrow said. "We need to address the needs of our people."
As for the bingo operation itself, Ms. Garrow called it a "bingo player's paradise."
"Bingo here is so affordable," she said. "For [around] $35 you can play a whole card [18 games} and have a chance to win $1,000."
A grand opening is planned sometime in the future, but the facility is already open every day with two sessions, one starting at 1 p.m. and the other at 5 p.m. Doors open an hour before games start.
"The main thing," Ms. Clute said, "is customer service and respect for elders."