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A Milestone Morning for Oneida Land Transfer Ceremony

The Oneida Indian Nation and the Bureau of Indian Affairs on August 21 signed the deeds to 13,004 acres of land that was being put into trust.

Mary Cornelius Winder (Wolf Clan) was fifty years old in 1948 when she wrote to the Bureau of Indian Affairs asking for payment or the return of the land that the State of New York had taken illegally from the Oneida Indian Nation over the course of the 19th century.

By then, Mary Winder had spent all of her adult life seeking acknowledgment that the Nation’s right to the 300,000 acres of reservation land – a fraction of its six million-acre aboriginal territory – was guaranteed to the Oneida people by the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua. In her appeals for redress, including her 1948 letter, Mary Winder reminded the federal authorities that the newly-formed United States had entered into the treaty promising to protect the Nation’s reservation after Oneida had allied with the revolutionary forces fighting against the British. That alliance had cost the Oneida people war deaths, starvation, and the destruction of their homes and orchards. Mary Winder’s 1948 request fell on deaf ears as did all her previous requests. She died six years later without seeing any of the treaty-guaranteed land restored to her people.

But Mary Winder surely would have had a measure of satisfaction on August 21, 2014, when her grandson Ray Halbritter, Oneida Nation representative and CEO of Nation Enterprises, parent company of Indian Country Today Media Network, signed off on deeds placing 13,004 acres of the Oneida Nation’s vast historic homeland into trust with the Department of the Interior. It is the largest piece of land over which the Oneida Nation has sovereign jurisdiction since 1824.

“We made many sacrifices as a people to make this country what it is today,” Halbritter said in front of a low-key crowd of about 50. “We lost our land as a people and probably not much more is as devastating as losing your land. … More recently we sought to seek justice in the courts.

“…We have reached an agreement where our sovereignty is being recognized and our land is being returned to us in the form of trust lands,” Halbritter continued.

The signing ceremony was unique. Unlike many land into trust transactions, which occur at the massive Department of the Interior building in Washington, D.C, this one took place in the Oneida Councilhouse where the Nation’s traditional ceremonies take place.

Those in attendance sat on wooden benches on a muggy morning with a sky filled with overcast clouds. Thunderstorms could be heard in the distance; the indoor fans had been silenced so everyone could hear. The wooden structure, as Halbritter explained, is a place where the Oneida clans meet to discuss Nation issues, and where ceremonies are held before any meeting. Inside the four wooden walls of the great structure differences are set aside for the betterment of the whole.

Halbritter, Oneida citizens and council members, and federal government officials gathered in the Councilhouse for the ceremony, which began at 11 a.m. Among the federal officials were Johnna Blackhair, Acting Area Director of the Eastern Regional Office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs; John Wayne Smith, BIA Eastern Regional Office Realty Specialist; and Chester McGhee, BIA Eastern Regional Environmental Scientist.

Halbritter introduced Blackhair to speak on behalf of the BIA and the Department of the Interior as part of the official process following his initial speech. Blackhair, now in her third week as acting area director, gave a proper Native introduction in her Cree language, and spoke of her nervousness on the momentous day.

Blackhair stressed that it was a great honor to be in attendance for this signing.

Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn could not attend the signing ceremony and sent his regrets. Former Eastern Regional Director Franklin Keel, who stepped down August 1, was unable to attend the signing ceremony but provided a written statement that was read by McGhee.

Applause was aplenty as the news of the lands being signed into trust was shared. Dale Rood, Oneida Turtle Clan, said, “It’s an amazing time for all of us especially considering what we’ve been able to accomplish.”

Rood, along with Chuck Fougnier, Oneida Wolf Clan, and Beulah Green, Turtle Clan Mother, joined the main table for the ceremony. Halbritter made it a point to single out Green for being a part of the day at 100-years-old.

“It’s been a very long time – almost two centuries – we’ve been dispossessed of this land… it’s been a long and bumpy road but we’re almost there,” Fougnier said.

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In a sign of recognition Halbritter presented each member of the BIA with a copy of “Forgotten Allies: The Oneida Indians and the American Revolution” by Joseph T. Glathaar and James Kirby Martin.

When the federal government takes Indian land into trust, it protects an Indian nation’s sovereignty by restricting state and local governments’ from exercising jurisdiction over the land, for example, by imposing taxes or regulations. The Nation has had a long struggle to reach the point of restoring sovereignty to the 13,004-acres by placing them in trust.

By the early 1900s, the State of New York had illegally dispossessed the Nation of almost all of the 300,000-acre reservation protected by the Treaty of Canandaigua. The Oneida Nation had held on to 32 acres, but even that land was taken away in the early 1900s by a state court in mortgage foreclosure proceedings. The U.S. sued in federal court to get the 32 acres back for the Oneidas – and won. Oneida has held onto the small but critical tract of land ever since. The 32 acres forms the heart of the Oneida reservation with the Nation’s Councilhouse, cookhouse and other community buildings located there. The 32 acres are protected by the Treaty of Canandaigua and will not be held in trust by the U.S. government.

The need to restore reservation land and the justice that would come with the Nation’s right to exercise sovereignty over that land became glaringly obvious in the 1970s and 1980s when the City of Oneida refused to provide fire and law enforcement protection to the Oneida Nation on the 32 acres. It was a time when Oneida people burned to death in trailers or were terrorized by people with automatic weapons. The federal government intervened on the Nation’s behalf, obtaining consent decrees to stop the discriminatory provision of fire and police protection and criminally prosecuting those who terrorized the Nation with guns

For more than 100 years, Mary Winder and others had tried to no avail to have the federal government help the Nation obtain justice for its illegally taken land. By the 1970s and 1980s the Nation was helping itself: It filed a land rights lawsuit in federal court and began buying back from willing sellers reservation land that had been illegally obtained from the Nation long ago.

The federal government joined the Nations’ land rights lawsuit in 2001, but it was ultimately unsuccessful. In April 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Sherrill v. Oneida that too much time had passed to assert its claim of sovereignty over its historical reservation boundaries. The court also rejected the Oneida’s claim of sovereignty over reacquired reservation lands. But the high court acknowledged that all of the Nation’s reservation protected by the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua still exists and the Nation could regain sovereignty over reacquired reservation lands by asking the Interior Department to take the lands into trust. Less than a week after the Sherrill ruling, the Nation asked Interior to take 17,370 acres into trust.

On May 30, 2014 – almost 10 years after the Nation filed its land into trust application -- the Interior Department announced it would take 13,004 acres into trust for the Oneida Indian Nation.

Interior first announced it would take the 13,000-plus acres into trust in 2008 after three years of investigating its social, economic and environmental impacts, an exceptional number of public hearings, and thousands of pages of documentation. A cluster of lawsuits were filed by Oneida and Madison counties and the state of New York challenging the decision and seeking to overturn it. The anti-Indian sovereignty group Upstate Citizens for Equality and two other non-governmental entities, also filed lawsuits challenging Interior’s decision.

In 2013, however, Halbritter and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the signing of a historic agreement that recognizes the Oneida Nation’s reservation, settles all outstanding litigation and resolves all disputes over property and sales taxes, including cigarette and fuel sales. The agreement which was approved in March by the state legislature, also resolves all disputes between the two sovereigns over land rights, tax issues, gaming exclusivity and profits. As part of the agreement, the state and towns dropped their lawsuits challenging Interior’s decision to take the 13,004 acres into trust for the Nation.

RELATED: The Peacemakers: Inside New York and Oneida's Historic Agreement

The final step in the trust transfer process took place in the Councilhouse Thursday when Halbritter signed deeds transferring the state-law fee simple interest in the land to the United States, with the express limitation that it be held in trust solely for the benefit of the Oneida Nation. The land is not federal government land to be used by the federal government, but is simply to be held by the federal government so that the Oneida Nation may use it, exercise its sovereignty over it, and be protected by federal law against interference by the state or local governments.

As for future plans to re-acquire more of the Nation’s ancestral reservation land for placement into trust, Halbritter was hopeful that the remaining 4,000 acres of the original 17,000 acres will be signed over soon. Following those 4,000 acres, the Nation is capable of buying another 9,000 acres for future land into trust, which would bring the total land held in trust amount up to 26,000 acres.

Questions from those in attendance focused on what plans were already made for the new territory, to which Halbritter said there had been some discussions of what to do but that the main focus of the leadership was securing the acreage first. One comment that drew a raucous cheer was when Halbritter was asked if the Oneida Housing Program would be coming back, to which he replied yes.

“The only reason we are here today is because our ancestors stood up for us … that’s something we need to pass on,” Halbritter said.

Additional reporting for this piece was provided by Ken Polisse.