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Oneida land claim heats up again

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GREEN BAY, Wis. - Oneida tribal members in Wisconsin read an ad in a local newspaper that admonished their tribal government, and it came from the Oneida Nation of New York.

The text of a letter sent to Wisconsin Oneida Tribal Chairwoman Cristina Danforth from the New York Oneida Men's Council was the subject of the ad, and it did not sit well with tribal leadership.

"We are always ready to take part in meetings that might help to resolve the Oneida land claim," the letter to Danforth stated.

"However, as we have pointed out, your leadership continues to take steps that are highly divisive and provocative and that certainly will prevent a settlement."

The Jan. 9 letter to Danforth was in response to dragged-out talks between the tribes and a Dec. 4 letter from her to Ray Halbritter, nation representative of the Oneida Nation of New York. Danforth's letter opened the door for more discussions over the issue of the homeland and offered to meet in neutral territory.

"Our intentions to pursue the claim to its rightful conclusion must now be clear. In the past we have met, prayed, hoped, negotiated, mediated, litigated and in all ways tried to bring the claim to closure in a good way," Danforth stated in her letter.

"As we meet with local leaders and confer on options, one message that we have heard a number of times is why can't you work together with the New York Oneida?

"We both recognize that these are echos (sic) of the past, but I will state once again that if there is a desire on your part to join with us in discussions focused on viable, equitable, and proportional solutions, then we stand ready to meet with you," Danforth wrote.

She closed by offering to meet in Detroit and stated, "Should you have any desire to proceed in more amicable ways, please respond at your earliest convenience and we will accommodate."

The letter from the Oneida Nation of New York brings the discussions to an end, according to officials from both tribes.

"The talks between the tribes are at a standstill," said Jerry Reed, spokesperson for the Oneida Nation of New York.

The dispute between the two tribes is about the homeland. The Wisconsin Oneida Tribe has purchased land next to the Turning Stone Casino in New York, and also acquired 80 acres in the Catskills. There are at least two parts to the Wisconsin Oneida's claim; first to reclaim former homeland, and second, to establish a casino as a means to reach a settlement claim against the State of New York.

"It looks to us like they are dropping the claim," Reed said.

Casino revenues would be in lieu of revenue from the state of New York over settlement claims regarding taken homelands.

The Oneida Nation and tribes have been in negotiations with the state over the settlement of a land claim, but no agreement has been reached after years of attempts. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1985 determined that New York illegally took the homeland of the Oneidas and a monetary settlement was to be reached. It is the oldest and largest land claim in the United States. No details of the negotiations have ever been released and no dollar figures have been made public.

As part of the court decision the Wisconsin tribe re-established its rightful ownership to the homeland territory in New York. The Wisconsin tribe pursued the purchase of land, which brought about the disagreement between the two Oneida nations.

"Recently, your Vice Chairwoman Kathy Hughes, in a meeting on our lands, threatened that things, 'might not be so nice for us here' if we did not agree to your casino and reservation demands," the Men's Council letter to Danforth stated.

"We do take your threats seriously," the letter stated.

No details of the alleged threat were made public.

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Gov. George Pataki and the New York legislature opened the door for six more casinos in the state, three of which will be located in the Catskills. The Wisconsin Oneidas hope to be one of the three and revenue from that casino will repay them for the homeland lost to the state, Hughes said.

Reed said the recent ad was printed to inform Wisconsin tribal members, "The tribal leaders are not informing the people."

When asked about that accusation, Kathy Hughes, Wisconsin tribal vice chairwoman said they had held membership meetings and read their Dec. 4 letter and the response from the Oneida Nation. Answers to questions were also given, she said.

"We tell the tribal membership everything we can. We are sharing as much as possible," she said. Some details of negotiations with the state are confidential. Neither tribe would reveal them.

Reed said he was not aware of those meetings or what took place.

Part of the disagreement between the tribes involves a perceived establishment of a government by the Wisconsin group in New York.

A 1990 tribal resolution stated the Wisconsin tribe would not establish a government in New York. Hughes said that policy has not changed.

"The belief is these casinos allowed by the legislature should go to New York tribes. They are not a New York tribe; they left 200 years ago. They are now a Wisconsin tribe," Reed said.

The letter to Danforth stated: "We did not sell Mother Earth 200 years ago and we are not willing to sell Mother Earth now. We will not trade or sell our land claim for a casino in the Catskills and we will oppose efforts by you to do so."

Reed said he was not aware of the BIA ever awarding land into trust to a tribe that was not located in the state in which the trust land was located.

Hughes said, a year ago she spoke with Halbritter. "(Halbritter) said, regardless of what is in writing people moving back could interfere in the government," Hughes stated.

"They don't want to see us return, it threatens their governance," she said.

Reed said there was a sensitivity to the group coming to New York. "Some of them are aligned with dissidents in New York."

Halbritter has faced criticism for actions taken by the government to impose its rules on tribal membership that some people claim have been disproportionately imposed against families who oppose his leadership.

The Wisconsin tribe owns 200 acres next to a golf course owned by the New York Nation. Hughes said people can stand on the edge of the property and see the Turning Stone Casino owned by the New York Oneida Nation.

"As you are undoubtedly aware, our General Tribal Council recently authorized us to proceed with all steps necessary to move the claim to a rightful conclusion.

"We are now fully engaged and committed to any and all steps to make that happen," the letter to Halbritter stated.

Membership in the New York tribe is based on matrilineal descendants. In Wisconsin, blood quantum is the criteria used for tribal membership.

Hughes said there may be a few people in Wisconsin that could gain membership in New York. Wisconsin has 15,000 Oneida members.

"At the direction of our membership we will pursue a site in the Catskills for a casino to get back the claim settlement," Hughes said.