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Multiple challenges filed to Oneida Nation trust land ruling

ALBANY, N.Y. - A cluster of lawsuits have been filed challenging the Interior Department;s final decision to take into trust 13,004 acres of the Oneida Indian Nation's 300,000-acre ancestral homeland.

On June 19, Gov. David A. Paterson and Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo jointly announced that the governor, the counties of Oneida and Madison, and the state of New York had filed a lawsuit in federal court to overturn an administrative decision by Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne to act on a BIA recommendation to place the 13,004 acres into trust for the OIN.

The OIN owns Four Directions Media, parent company of Indian Country Today.

The towns of Verona and Vernon, as well as two individuals, filed a joint lawsuit challenging the land-into-trust decision on the same day.

Two days earlier, the anti-Indian sovereignty group Upstate Citizens for Equality filed its lawsuit in Utica, and the Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians of Wisconsin filed suit in Washington, D.C.

The lawsuits were filed within the 30-day period following Interior's May 20 announcement, and are likely to end up consolidated in one court.

Interior's decision to take the land into trust came after years of investigating its social, economic and environmental impacts; and an exceptional number of public hearings; and thousands of pages of documentation. Opponents have consistently fought the nation's efforts to regain sovereignty over its historical lands.

The nation issued a statement rebuking the state and counties for spending taxpayer money on an expensive lawsuit in the current perilous economy.

''The United States government has made its final decision following unprecedented levels of participation by our community. The matter is now over,'' said nation spokesman Mark Emery.

''Unfortunately, the people of Madison and Oneida counties are now stuck paying the lawyers' fees for both sides of the case - the federal government on one side and the state and counties on the other side. In this economy, the last thing our community ought to be doing is footing the bill on both sides of a costly lawsuit that benefits nobody.''

While the lawsuits crowd multiple complaints under the two broad allegations of ''unconstitutional'' and ''arbitrary and capricious,'' the bulk of the arguments have already been heard in various courts that have set precedents on the issues.

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The state and county argue that the U.S. Constitution does not give the federal government the power to take land into trust in New York and that no land can be taken into trust without the state's consent.

The towns and UCE additionally challenge the Interior secretary's authority to take land into trust under the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act.

A number of circuit courts of appeal already have upheld the constitutionality of the delegation of power to the Interior secretary to take land into trust for Indians; and last February, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a request for a review of the same argument in Carcieri v. Kempthorne, the state of Rhode Island's challenge of Interior's decision to take 31 acres of land into trust for the Narragansett Indian Tribe.

The Stockbridge-Munsee Community argues that a 1788 treaty guaranteed it 3,132 acres of the Oneida trust land.

The 13,004 acres of trust land are part of the OIN's 300,000 acres of aboriginal territory that were acknowledged under the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua and alienated over the years through violations of the 1790 Trade and Intercourse Act.

The state argues that if Interior's decision is upheld, ''it will fundamentally and permanently alter the character and governance structure of the affected areas and adversely and irreparably impact the financial stability of those communities.''

Interior's economic study shows, however, that the communities continue to gain more than they lose from the nation's enterprises.

In 2005, for example, the nation's direct and indirect contributions to state and local governments totaled approximately $24.29 million, while the nations' costs to those governments for services attributed to the nation totaled approximately $7.54 million, providing a net positive contribution of $16.76 million to state and local governments.

The 13,004 acres are within two relatively condensed clusters and include the OIN's Turning Stone Resort and Casino in Verona and 32 acres near Oneida, where most of the government and cultural offices are located. They also include about 80 percent of the OIN's housing, its four golf courses, four of its 13 SavOn gas stations and convenience stores, and about 9,700 acres of farmland.

The OIN had asked Interior to take 17,370 acres into trust in April 2005, less than a week after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York that the tribe had waited too long to assert its claim of sovereignty over its historical reservation boundaries. The court suggested that the nation seek land into trust for its fee lands.

The land claim had its genesis in 1948 - two years after the creation of the Indian Claims Commission - when an OIN member wrote a letter to the BIA requesting payment or return of the land illegally taken from the Oneidas by New York state.