New York doubts Mohegan motives in land claim

Charismatic chief endeavors to establish reservation near Albany

October 11, 2001|By ALBANY TIMES UNION

WAWARSING, N.Y. - A group led by a charismatic, self-proclaimed "last of the Mohegans" chief has established what it claims to be New York's newest reservation.

But the move by the Western Mohegan Tribe & Nation, which some officials view as a prelude to organized gambling just 90 miles southwest of Albany, has renewed questions about the tribe's legitimacy.

At the center of the effort is Ronald A. Roberts, who used to sell slate in Granville and who now calls himself Chief Golden Eagle.

But the state and federal governments do not recognize the Western Mohegans as a tribe. The tribal council of the Stockbridge Munsee Band of Mohicans, a recognized gaming tribe in Wisconsin, wants nothing to do with Roberts.

Yet Roberts has suddenly raised at least $1.9 million to purchase the deteriorated, bankrupt Tamarack Hotel, paying half the sum to a bankruptcy court. He bought the resort - which includes 250 acres, a main lodge and numerous other buildings - from Ulster County, which got it through a tax foreclosure.

In July, Ulster County legislators went along with Roberts' wishes to identify the purchasers as a tribe and a sovereign nation with which the county was settling any potential litigation involving ancestral homelands. The land is being held in trust by Union National Bank as "Indian Country" for perpetuity.

Plans for farming

In an interview at the site, Roberts said the land someday will be home to hundreds of Indian families, and that he has plans for hydroponic farming and a cultural center.

Area officials and some people who have discussed it with Roberts believe the Tamarack project is all a prelude to building a gambling hall.

Roberts declined to identify his supporters, although he mentioned that the Sioux are helping, and named Charles Colombe of the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. Colombe, who often assists Native Americans in developing gaming, described Roberts as a friend. "He has investors. I'm not in that group, but I have assisted him in other areas," he said.

A lawyer who helped in the Tamarack Hotel deal said a group called BAG LLC is helping underwrite expenses. "You really have to talk to the chief. He's the boss," said Bernard Wiczer, BAG's lawyer in Chicago, referring to Roberts.

A few Native Americans, including a few Stockbridge Munsees, have joined Roberts in refurbishing the sprawling resort 25 miles from Monticello.

Robert Parker, the former owner of the Concord Resort, is assisting. Parker said he has known Roberts for 30 years, since Roberts performed as a country singer at the Concord. About seven years ago he found out Roberts was an Indian, Parker said.

Roberts claims he has DNA and genealogical evidence to prove his heritage. He said his tribe numbers more than 300 people, mostly from Washington County, and that they descended from Mohegans who roamed the land between Lake Champlain and Manhattan.

A powerfully built man of 6 feet 3 with striking blue eyes and a broadcaster's voice, Roberts, 54, said his goals are altruistic. "All we ever wanted to do is bring the nation back and share it with everyone," he said. "As you get older, you want to correct some of the wrongs."

Roberts also has a litigious streak. He tried to set up a bingo hall in his hometown, but was thwarted by the state attorney general. He claimed ownership of Ellis Island, home of the Statue of Liberty. In a bankruptcy case two years ago, Roberts tried to take possession of The Concord, a Sullivan County landmark, saying it was in the tribe's homeland. Sullivan County Attorney Ira Cohen says Roberts and Parker talked about turning The Concord into a bingo parlor.

And last year, Roberts filed notices of claim seeking tens of millions of dollars in "rent" from Hudson Valley municipalities, including the City of Albany and Albany County, for using his group's homeland for several centuries. In talks with Albany officials, the idea of creating a casino along the Hudson was raised.

"I think they filed claims against everyone, hoping they could intimidate someone into giving them land for a casino," Cohen said.

Gaming interest denied

Roberts said he has no interest in gaming, and that his goal is to construct up to 50 greenhouses for year-round farming of tomatoes and other produce, build a comfortable community and an Indian cultural village for tourism. But he added he could be overruled by the group's "elders."

Wawarsing Town Supervisor Richard Craft, who has been trying to get proof that the group is a tribe, said he sees more in Roberts' agenda.

"They're intending to do bingo," he said. "That's what I believe they're renovating the building for."

Town Building Inspector Jack Kissel said he has sought to inspect the renovations, but said Roberts insisted he has sovereign nation status.

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