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Federal court rules for Oneida Nation in "Indian country" case

A federal court ruled that members of the Oneida Nation of New York are not bound to pay property taxes on ancestral lands in the upstate city of Sherrill. By a 2-1 vote, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court decision which said that since the Oneida-owned properties in question lie within the boundaries of the original Oneida reservation as defined by the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua, they are part of Indian country and thus not subject to local taxes.

"The Oneida Nation is pleased with the decision in the case, but is not prepared to make any further comment pending a complete review of the decision by Nation attorneys," said Nation spokesman Jerry Reed.

The case stems from a lawsuit filed in February 2000 by the tribe against the city of Sherrill after the city began eviction proceedings for unpaid property taxes. On June 4, 2001, a lower court ruled that the city had no taxation or eviction jurisdiction over tribal members. Sherrill's lawyers had argued that the tribe ceded the lands under terms of the 1838 Treaty of Buffalo Creek.

The defendants also claimed that the tribe had ceased to exist, the 2nd Circuit ruled otherwise. In the decision, Judge B.D. Parker stated that the Oneida "reservation has never been disestablished and the trust relationship between the federal government and the Oneidas has never been terminated."

Indeed, the ruling validated the fact that the tribe's last remaining parcel of land, a 32-acre plot off Route 46 in Madison County known at the "Territory," was never relinquished. The decision also confirmed that the government-to-government relationship between Washington and the Oneidas was never terminated, and noted that the feds never approved of the sale of any of the land in dispute.

The Oneidas once controlled a vast area in central New York, extending from the Pennsylvania border north to the St. Lawrence River and from the shores of Lake Ontario to the western edge of the Adirondacks. In 1794, the Treaty of Canandaigua recognized that the Oneida reservation covered approximately 300,000 acres, including lands in present-day Madison and Oneida counties. During the 1800s, much of this original reservation was acquired by the state and then resold to non-Indians. Federal courts have ruled that because the state had no authority to buy Indian land without federal approval, these sales were invalid and thus formed the basis for the Nation's currently outstanding land claim.

That claim encompasses some 250,000 acres in Oneida and Madison counties which are situated halfway between Syracuse and Utica. Since the opening of its Turning Stone Casino Resort in 1993, the tribe has diversified into a number of other businesses, including a gas station/convenience store chain, a textile plant and a pair of shopping centers.

The Oneidas have reacquired some 16,000 acres of land within the land claim area. In lieu of property taxes, the tribe has offered financial compensation to the several school districts, towns and counties in which it now owns land. Some jurisdictions have accepted the funds, others have not. The Nation in February 2002 announced a proposed settlement of the land claim with the state, but other Oneida groups in Wisconsin and Ontario balked at accepting a settlement that they did not negotiate.