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Judge hands off Oneida land case

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SYRACUSE, N.Y. - One Indian land claims case is enough for a lifetime, says Federal Judge Neal P. McCurn.

Now working full-time to wrap up the Cayuga Indian suit against New York state, the 74-year-old jurist is handing over the Oneida Indians' case to another judge 11 years his junior.

Compared to the Cayuga case, Judge McCurn said the Oneida suit "is really in its infancy." It was first brought to court in 1974. He doubted that it would be over before the end of his career, or even his life.

"At my age, I may not be around four years from now, or I may not be working," he told the Syracuse Post Standard for a Jan. 9 story. "There's somebody upstairs who decides how long I'll be around."

McCurn reassigned the Oneida case to Judge Lawrence E. Kahn, 63, based in Albany about 130 miles east of the Oneida Nation headquarters. Judge Kahn, appointed to the federal District Court by President Clinton in 1996, said he would take the case "step by step." The case files have already been shipped to Albany, said the clerk of the federal court in Syracuse.

"Obviously, the case will be moving forward," said Oneida Nation spokesman Mark Emery. "The nation is prepared to move forward with the case. Our lawyers are continuing to read Judge McCurn's decision."

The immensely complicated case involves claims of Oneida Indians of New York, Wisconsin and Canada for 250,000 acres that the tribe charges were illegally purchased by New York state around two centuries ago. The Oneidas and a brace of lawyers have gone through years of off-and-on settlement talks with the state government and upstate Madison and Oneida counties.

Judge McCurn compared the talks to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. "They just can't get together," he told the Post Standard. "Each side has his head in the sand."

McCurn also criticized Congress for failing to legislate a settlement. "They just sit back and do nothing about this."

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"My view, my suspicion," he said," is the problem with land claims in New York is that they won't get the attention of legislators who have their problems in other states."

In spite of a tone of weariness with a highly emotional case that still has no trial date in sight, Judge McCurn said his main concern was to devote full-time to the Cayuga land case, which is very close to an end.

Aspects of the Oneida case "needed immediate attention," said Judge McCurn's clerk, "but he wanted to save all his effort and attention for the Cayuga case."

The Cayuga of New York and Oklahoma won a jury trial in February on their claims against New York state, but they went back to court to protest the $36.9 million award, an amount less than a third of previous settlement offers. Judge McCurn presided over a second trial in July on Cayuga claims for interest payments on land rental, a sum witnesses for the tribe calculated at $1.7 billion.

Judge McCurn said that final briefs on the Cayuga claim are due Jan. 31 and that he would devote his next five or six months to a decision.

The judge kept his hand in one holdover from the Oneida case. In ruling on a series of motions, he agreed to hear out two brothers from eastern Connecticut pushing a land claim against the Oneidas on behalf of the Brothertown Indian Nation of New York.

Maurice "Storm" Champlain and Ronald "Thunderbolt" Champlain, claim to represent the Brothertown Indians, an amalgamated tribe of Pequot and Mohegan origin which dates to a mid-18th century movement to found an independent Christian Indian community living apart from whites.

One of the original leaders, the preacher Samson Occum, raised funds to found Dartmouth College but turned to separatism when he was disillusioned by the result. His group was deeded 100,000 acres by the Oneida tribe for a New York state settlement but was eventually pushed further west.

The Champlains maintain they should receive part of any Oneida settlement. But they are acting independently of the main body of their group, the Brothertown Indians of Wisconsin, with 2,400 members, which is seeking federal recognition.

The Oneida Nation had little to say about their claim, Emery said. "This one came out of left field."