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Federal government steps out of Oneida land claim

ONEIDA NATION HOMELANDS, N.Y. - A tentative settlement reached last year in the Oneida land claim case is now officially moot. The federal government announced that it will not put up $250 million to pay damages to three tribes of Oneida Indians, effectively derailing the long-stagnant deal.

The non-payment decision was made in August, according to a report in the Syracuse Post-Standard, which cited a letter written by Michael Rossetti, an Interior Department lawyer, to John Tabner, court-appointed mediator in the land claim case.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1985 that the Oneidas had a valid land claim case, but little progress has been achieved in litigation or negotiation since then. U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence A. Kahn of the Northern District of New York, presiding over the case in Syracuse, appointed Tabner, an Albany lawyer, as mediator on May 3, 2002 and has since extended his tenure.

Announced on Feb. 16, 2002, the proposed settlement was an agreement between the Oneida Nation of New York, the state, and the counties of Madison and Oneida. It would have given the Oneida Nation of New York sole rights to reacquire territory within the 250,000-acre claim area with $225 million in funds provided by both the state and federal governments. Of the other Indian parties to the lawsuit, the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin was to get $250 million while the Oneida of the Thames, descendants of tribal members who moved to southern Ontario, would have received $25 million.

Neither of the non-New York Oneida tribes, however, would have received sovereignty rights over reacquired land; neither the federal government nor either of the two tribes had any role or involvement in the settlement negotiations. Indeed, shortly after the announcement, Washington stated that it would not contribute funds toward the deal.

"The nation has always believed that a fair and equitable settlement will be reached," said Mark Emery, spokesman for the New York Oneidas. He declined further comment.

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The Wisconsin Oneidas, upset at being left out of the negotiations toward the now-defunct settlement, subsequently filed lawsuits against some five dozen commercial landowners in the claim area in an attempt to gain some leverage. Those lawsuits were dismissed on Sept. 5, 2002. The 15,000-member Wisconsin tribe operates a casino and several other economic enterprises from its reservation near Green Bay.

"We weren't anticipating a positive response from the federal government," said Cristina Danforth, chairwoman of the Wisconsin Oneidas, stressing the fact that her tribe was not a party to the proposed settlement. "We need to continue our discussions around mediation and look at what other alternatives are available if any."

The Canadian Oneidas have a 5,420-acre reserve southwest of London, Ontario, where some 2,000 of the tribe's approximately 5,000 members reside. Last summer, the tribe purchased property within the claim area in Oneida Castle, N.Y.

Tribal officials did not return a phone call for comment by deadline.

The ongoing Oneida land claim is a rather complicated case - it features descendants of tribal members who left both New York state and the United States as well as those who remained in New York. Each group, while united in desire to reacquire ancestral territory, has its own vested interests. On the table for the Indian tribes are potentially lucrative casino rights in the Catskill resort area. For the towns and counties within the claim area, the claim could mean the potential subtraction of thousands of acres from municipal tax rolls.

It remains unclear whether further negotiation will prove fruitful for the tribes in settling the ongoing case, or in presenting a united front for further litigation.