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House committee hears New York claims

WASHINGTON - The House Committee on Resources boldly stepped into one of
the densest legal thickets in Indian country with an oversight hearing on
New York land claims July 14.

"This is not going to be a committee of the rubber stamp," said Resources
Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif. "There seems to be a number of settlement
proposals floated for public discussion but with no formal review by the
only entity which has the final say in this matter: the Congress."

The hearing considered what witness Robert Chicks, president of the
Stockbridge-Munsee Community of Wisconsin, called "the oldest and most
contentious land claim in the country."

At issue are early tribal land cessions to New York state that were found
to be illegal because Congress never ratified them. In 1970, the Oneida
Tribe of Wisconsin and the Oneida Nation of New York filed a damages claim
that was upheld in 1985 by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The settlement with the state has been complicated by the dramatic success
of Indian gaming. When the federal government withdrew an ... funds in
2002, Gov. George Pataki negotiated a series of gaming agreements with
out-of-state tribes, the Wisconsin Oneida among them.

In return for casino income, the tribes agreed to settle their claims and
surrender sovereign status on gaming land in Sullivan County, which lies in
the Catskill Mountains outside any reservation or claim area.

The Resources Committee, pursuant to facilitating a claims resolution
Congress can approve, heard from a variety of groups party to the
longstanding and ever-evolving dispute.

"We are people who chose not to sell our Mother Earth," said Ray
Halbritter, nation representative for the New York Oneidas. (The Oneida
Nation owns Four Directions Media, the parent company of Indian Country
Today.) He emphasized the legal and political rights of New York-based
tribes over those who sold their lands and emigrated out of state.

Halbritter testified that the Oneida, who own the Turning Stone Resort and
Casino in Verona, support amending the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act to
prevent tribes from conducting gaming outside their state of residence. The
Resources Committee is drafting a bill that would restrict off-reservation
gaming.

Halbritter noted an irony in the financial leverage created by the new
alliance between out-of-state tribes and Albany: "The state is trying to
find a way to line its own pockets for liability of dispossession."

"The main objections by the New York Oneida are just plain wrong,"
responded Cristina Danforth, Wisconsin Oneida chairman. The out-of-state
moniker is a "made-up tag," said Danforth, citing that 90 percent of U.S.
Oneidas reside in Wisconsin and that the courts have found both groups to
be legitimate claimants. "Collectively, we are all heirs of our ancestral
lands."

The executive branch avoided taking sides. Asked by the committee why the
Bush administration withdrew $250 million in settlement funds offered by
its Clinton predecessor, Deputy Interior Assistant Secretary Michael Olsen
said, "We simply don't have the money." The liability of the federal
government is "extremely limited" in these cases, Olsen added. "The
principle party that is liable is the state of New York."

The state was absent from the hearing. Though invited to appear as a
witness, Pataki neither attended nor sent a proxy representative in his
place. New York can either be part of the discussion for resolving the
claims, declared Pombo, "or they can watch."

Tribes came to testify from far and near. The Seneca-Cayuga of Oklahoma,
who reached an agreement for a Catskill facility, stressed the uniqueness
of New York claims and their inapplicability to other states. Chicks, of
the Stockbridge-Munsee, also in line for a Catskill casino, testified that
"such an opportunity will not come around again for a long time."

The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe seemed the closest to reaching a settlement
agreeable to all parties. An in-state tribe, the Mohawk live on ancestral
lands and exercise shared jurisdiction with several non-Indian communities.

St. Regis Chief James Ransom said that while the tribe has been negotiating
for a Catskills casino, its land claim has proceeded independently of
gaming, the only one of the claimants to have done so. The Mohawk
settlement is pending approval by the state senate.

A central issue involved in these claims is the conversion of fee land into
trust. The New York Oneida have purchased private land in their claim area
that they assert should be under their tribal jurisdiction. But the U.S.
Supreme Court ruled this year in City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation
of New York that the tribe has no sovereignty over fee lands until they are
placed in trust by Congress.

The Interior Department, said Olsen, would support a land-into-trust
arrangement if Congress approved one.

Paul Miller, of the New York State Association of Counties (NYSAC), urged
in his testimony that any claims agreement be subject to local legislative
approval and that local governments be compensated for loss of jurisdiction
or revenue.

Referring to the Sherrill decision, and the more recent Cayuga Nation v.
New York, which ruled that the tribe is allowed no damages for lands
illegally acquired, Miller submitted written testimony saying that "the law
has finally caught up with common sense."

The tribes dispute that. But the only matter all parties can seem to agree
on at present is a preference for a negotiated settlement rather than a
judicially imposed one.

"Nothing's impossible," Miller quipped, "to the guy who doesn't have to do
it."