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Judge tries to calm fears in land suit

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SENECA FALLS, N.Y. - A landowners' group opposing Iroquois land claims is determined to soldier on, even though the federal judge hearing the cases is trying to defuse tensions by removing private landowners from the suits.

In a strongly worded recent ruling, U.S. District Judge Neil McCurn excluded 20,000 landowners from the Oneida Indian Nation's suit over the loss of about 250,000 acres in upstate New York 200 years ago. On Oct. 6, the Oneida Men's Council and Clan Mothers announced that the Nation would not appeal the ruling.

"It's a misleading ruling," replied Mel Russo, co-chairman of the Upstate Citizens for Equality, which vehemently opposes efforts by the Oneida and Cayuga nations to reclaim tribal lands and operate businesses on sovereign territory. Even without the direct threat to homeowners, he said tribal businesses are costing local taxpayers "millions in lost taxes."

The UCE also is petitioning to overturn rulings in a separate suit by the Cayuga Nation, which received a $36.9 million jury award in February for homelands illegally sold by New York state at the turn of the 19th century.

Even though it was a "good ruling" from the UCE's viewpoint, Russo said his Seneca-Cayuga chapter collected 2,263 signatures on a petition urging the state to appeal.

"We are worried the state won't appeal because the monetary verdict is so low and because it was quite a bit better than the settlement offers they have proposed in the past," he said.

The Cayuga case, also before Judge McCurn, recently wound up a second phase on the size of an interest payment to be added to the February jury award. Opposing witnesses offered estimates that ranged from $50 million to $1.7 billion in interest due.

The UCE petition, presented to the local state senator and sent to other officials as well as U.S. Senate candidates Rick Lazio and Hillary Clinton, asked for an appeal of Judge McCurn's 1994 ruling that the Cayuga homeland was illegally acquired in 1797 and 1807.

Russo said that in the Cayuga case Judge McCurn had only "severed" individual homeowners, meaning that they could be sued later on, while in the pending Oneida case, the judge emphatically dismissed attempts by Oneida Nation and U.S. Justice Department lawyers to add homeowners to the case.

In the Oneida case, Judge McCurn sharply criticized the "extraordinarily divisive" motions to name the landowners. "Worst of all," he wrote, " they have incited threats and potentially dangerous consequences, including physical assault on proponents and opponents of these land claims."

Both the Justice and the Oneida Nation quickly accepted the ruling. "Nation attorneys have been directed to take those steps necessary to comply with the judge's order," read the statement from the Men's Council and Clan Mothers.

But the announcement failed to mollify the UCE, which was holding an open house for a new store-front office for its Seneca-Cayuga Chapter in Seneca Falls. The ceremonies included an appearance by a person dressed as Christopher Columbus.

Russo said his group was concerned about competition from tribal businesses, which are not required to collect the state sales tax. The Oneida Nation's Sav-On filling stations and convenience stores regularly are picketed by UCE members.

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"They can charge less and make more profit," Russo said. "They pay 40 cents a gallon less and they're selling at 10 cents a gallon less."

This concern is reflected in UCE membership which includes small business owners as well as homeowners, he said, adding his group had grown most rapidly when homeowners felt most threatened.

"We used to have regular meetings with 300 to 500 people," he said. "We had one meeting with 2,500 people."

His chapter now has about 3,600 names on its mailing list, he said, and the Oneida chapter run by Scott Peterman has about the same.

With the easing of the threat to homeowners, the UCE is emphasizing treaty claims for unrestricted hunting, fishing and gathering rights, which Russo said were asserted by a witness during the Cayuga trial. Russo said these claims extended from Lake Ontario to the Pennsylvania border.

"That will go down well with the sportsmen's community up here," he said.

Russo said his group organized a Sportsman's Club with 3,000 members, although membership rolls overlap.

He denied the frequent charge that his group was anti-Indian. "We've always respected their culture," he said. "If they lived side-by-side and paid taxes, we wouldn't have any difficulty. If they lived by our rules."

He added that the early missionaries had considered the Iroquois a "brilliant people, although they found some objectionable things going on, like cannibalism, slavery, warring."

If Russo was relatively restrained in his interview, Judge McCurn, writing in the name of reducing tensions, pulled no punches. In rejecting the Oneida Nation's motion, he repeatedly criticized its "bad faith."

"As an aside, the court cannot help but comment that in reality the Oneidas' strategy has resulted in maximum disruption, because through their repeated public assurances over the years that the private landowners would not lose their homes, nor be personally liable for monetary damages, the landowners were lulled into a false sense of security," McCurn wrote. "Needless to say, this sense of security was shattered by the Oneidas filing of the present motions."

The judge also scorned the federal attorneys. "This action has been fraught with enough tension and uncertainty without the U.S. vacillating on the critical issue of the private landowners' role, if any, in this litigation.

"The U.S.' failure to take a firm position on this issue early on and stand by it has, in the court's opinion, been extremely detrimental not only to the parties to this litigation, but to the entire Central New York community, especially those residing in or near the claim area. Simply put, the U.S. is trying to have its cake and eat it, too; it is trying to appease both the Oneidas and the private landowners."

In spite of the decision not to appeal the judge's ruling, Oneida leaders strongly defended the suit itself at a two-hour forum at the Turning Stone casino Oct. 5 with 200 community residents and members of the New York State Assembly's Black & Puerto Rican Legislative Caucus. Deploring what he called "racist attacks and hateful propaganda," Nation Representative Ray Halbritter asked, "Is the victim of the robbery wrong if we ask to keep the spare change in our pockets?"