Skip to main content

Decision rendered

Interior to take 13,004 acres in trust for Oneida Indian Nation

WASHINGTON - The federal government has issued a final decision to take into trust 13,004 acres of the Oneida Indian Nation's 300,000-acre ancestral homeland.

The Interior Department issued a Record of Decision May 20, announcing it would act on a BIA recommendation to place 13,086 acres into trust for the OIN. Interior's final decision excludes an 81.76-acre parcel of the nation's land the BIA had recommended in its preferred option from among nine alternatives.

(The OIN owns Four Directions Media, parent company of Indian Country Today.)

Interior's decision is a first step in settling a long-running land claim dispute. OIN had asked Interior to take 17,370 acres into trust in April 2005, less than a week after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the tribe had waited too long to assert its claim of sovereignty over its historical reservation boundaries - 300,000 acres that were acknowledged under the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua and alienated over the years through violations of the 1790 Trade and Intercourse Act.

The high court ruled that reacquired ancestral land was not sovereign and, therefore, was taxable and subject to local and state control. The court suggested that the tribe consider placing its reacquired fee lands in federal trust.

OIN Representative and CEO Ray Halbritter welcomed Interior's decision and issued the following statement:

''The Oneida people are sincerely grateful to everyone whose hard work has led to this initial step toward further securing our Oneida homelands. Ongoing future disagreements may be resolved through a reasonable negotiation process. A settlement, of course, would require all parties to make compromises. For our part, the Oneida people are willing to do so. We are willing to negotiate a limit on the amount, and locations, of future trust land acquisitions, none of which is required by law. The state and counties must offer good-faith compromises as well, rather than insist upon retaining the same positions they have held for more than a decade, if we expect to reach an understanding.

''In order to reach a resolution of our differences, which the Oneida people are committed to doing, leadership on both sides must bring people together. Calls for continued rancor and ongoing expensive litigation have accomplished nothing to resolve these issues for our community but have made some lawyers wealthy on both sides.

''We must continually ask ourselves about the legacy we are to leave our children. The answer, we believe, depends on how we conduct ourselves, both publicly and privately, going forward.''

Elected officials and an anti-Indian sovereignty group immediately vowed to challenge Interior's decision in court. They must file suit within 30 days.

The 13,004 acres are within ''two relatively condensed clusters'' and include the nation's Turning Stone Resort and Casino in Verona and 32 acres near Oneida where most of the government and cultural offices are located.

The decision ''reflects the balance of the current and short-term needs of the Nation to re-establish a sovereign homeland and the New York state and local government requests to establish a more contiguous and compact trust land grouping than the Proposed Action'' in the tribe's request for 17,730 acres, Interior said.

In addition to Turning Stone and government offices, the 13,004 acres include about 80 percent of the nation's housing, four golf courses, four of the tribe's 13 SavOn gas stations and convenience stores, and about 9,700 acres of farmland.

The proposal would set aside 8,751 acres in Oneida County and 4,253 acres in Madison County - in both instances, about 1 percent of the county's total area, the department said.

Elected officials in the counties and state consistently oppose the Oneidas' land-into-trust efforts, claiming sovereign Indian land would create a checkerboard of jurisdictions that would burden local governments, taxpayers and landowners.

But Interior's socioeconomic analysis shows that the communities continue to gain more than they lose from the nation's enterprises.

''In 2005, the revenues provided directly and indirectly by the Nation to the State and local governments [including agreements and employee and multiplier taxes] totaled approximately $24.29 million. The Nations' costs to New York state and local governments for services attributed to the Nation totaled approximately $7.54 million. Thus, the nation provided a net positive contribution of $16.76 million to the New York state and local governments,'' Interior said.

Interior's decision also deflated the state's efforts to co-opt Turning Stone revenues by introducing legislation in February 2007 to create an ''Oneida Indian Nation Turning Stone State Reservation.''

''New York state legislation is neither necessary nor sufficient to authorize Class III gaming at Turning Stone. Turning Stone is now operating lawfully under IGRA [Indian Gaming Regulatory Act],'' Interior said. The department also reiterated the legality of the tribal-state gaming compact and the casino's tax-exempt status.

Upstate Citizens for Equality, an anti-Indian sovereignty group, announced on its Web site that it would oppose Interior's decision even before it was announced.

''Although no formal notice has appeared in the Federal Register as of yet, various media outlets are reporting that the U.S. Department of the Interior has issued its decision to take over 13,000 acres of land into trust for the Oneida Indian Nation of New York. UCE will challenge this determination in federal court on the basis that it is, among other reasons, unconstitutional, the U.S. DOI acted in excess of its authority and is otherwise arbitrary and capricious,'' UCE said.