St. Regis Mohawk files treaty boundary lawsuit

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AKWESASNE, N.Y. – The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe has asked a federal court to reaffirm the tribe’s reservation boundaries as delineated in an 18th century treaty in order to stop the state and county from exercising illegal jurisdiction on sovereign Indian land.

The tribe filed a complaint in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York Aug. 5, naming New York Gov. David Paterson and Franklin County as defendants.

St. Regis is seeking a declaratory judgment that “the boundaries of the reservation set aside for the Indians of the Village of St. Regis in the 1796 Treaty with the Seven Nations of Canada. … are currently in place and encompass an area known as the Hogansburg Triangle.”

The state and county have 20 days to file a response to the claim.

The treaty, which identified lands consisting of a six-square-mile area and other areas to be set aside for the Indian nation, was ratified by Congress.

Nevertheless, both the state and county have tried “vigorously” to enforce civil laws on the tribe and its members living and working in the Hogansburg Triangle, the lawsuit says.

But the exercise of jurisdiction within an Indian reservation is governed by a federal statute that prohibits state civil jurisdiction on Indian reservations.

According to the lawsuit, Congress has said the federal statute is not to be construed “as subjecting the lands within any Indian reservation in the State of New York to taxation for state or local purposes, nor as subjecting any lands. ... to execution of any judgment rendered in the state courts [and] nothing herein shall be construed as authorizing the alienation from any Indian nation. … any lands within any Indian reservation in the State of New York.”

Mohawks in the 18th century refused to move from the aboriginal lands along the St. Lawrence River, now known as Franklin and St. Lawrence counties, where they had lived for hundreds of years. In the late 1700s, land speculators tried to buy Mohawk land from the state and, as a result, the state in the 1796 Treaty with the Seven Nations of Canada agreed to set aside land for the Mohawks as a federal reservation.

The only way to change reservation land is through an act of Congress, but Congress has not enacted any law that would change the 1796 reservation boundary.

Despite the state and county efforts to treat the Hogansburg Triangle as land outside the reservation, “the facts on the ground” illustrate that the land remains within Indian ownership, the claim says.

“The Triangle is bounded on three sides by the original reservation and has a distinct Indian character. Many members of the tribe work and live in the area today and have done so since the 1796 reservation was set aside. The majority of the Triangle population is Indian and the majority of land is Indian-owned,” the claims reads.

This is not the first time the tribe has based a lawsuit on the 1796 treaty. In the 1980s, the tribe filed a land claim in the same federal court seeking to recover title to all lands within the 1796 treaty boundaries that were illegally sold to New York state.

“We have not received any decision on the merits in this court – the case was stayed for many years while we negotiated a settlement; now the case is stayed pending an appeal by the Oneida Indian Nation,” said Dale White, the tribe’s legal counsel.

The current lawsuit is distinct from the 1980s land claim.

“We are filing this lawsuit separately from the land claim suit, not to resolve land title issues, but to resolve jurisdictional issues,” White said.

The current action was promoted by Mohawk people at the tribal council’s monthly public meeting in early August.

The members “formally requested that a resolution be passed by the Tribal Council, stating that it was time to proceed with a proposed civil action on the matter,” the tribe said in a press release. The Washington firm of Hobbs, Straus, Dean and Walker filed the suit on behalf of the tribe.

White said a number of factors may have played into tribal members’ request to pursue the judgment, including “the huge amount of taxes being imposed by the county, the county’s refusal to re-engage in settlement, the fact the tribe is providing more and more services in the area, the success of other tribes in asserting their boundary claims.”

A few tribal members pay taxes to the county, White said, but “I would say the majority stopped paying taxes some time ago.”

Franklin County Manager Jim Feeley was asked if non-Indian residents of the Hogansburg Triangle pay taxes to the county or state, but he declined to comment because of the pending court action, and referred questions to Franklin County Treasurer Bryon Varin, who could not be reached.

The non-Indian residents of the Triangle do not pay taxes to the tribe, White said.

The tribe, however, provides municipal services to Indians and non-Indians in the area, including sewerage and trash collection, road construction and water. The tribe also licenses businesses in the area. The Tribal Police Department polices the area and the tribe funds fire and emergency services. The fire station, which was built with tribal funds, is located within the Triangle.

In addition to their efforts to impose property taxes, local governments also have attempted to apply local building codes and business licensing laws within the disputed area.

A declaratory judgment that the reservation boundaries were never changed would clarify that the state and county do not have jurisdiction over the land, and that it’s only subject to federal jurisdiction.

However, the state of New York may have inadvertently acknowledged all along that the 1796 Treaty with the Seven Nations of Canada remains in effect.

The treaty required the state to pay the Indians a sum of money in 1796, and also “on the third Monday in August, yearly, forever thereafter, the like sum of two hundred and thirteen pounds six shillings and eight pence.”

White believes the state continues to make that payment.