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Stockbridge-Munsees look to regain land in New York

SYRACUSE, N.Y. - A U.S. District Court judge may have injected new life into the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians' claim for 23,000 acres of land in Upstate New York. Judge Lawrence Kahn on July 24 lifted an 8-year-old stay in the case, which has thus far prevented its litigated settlement.

The Stockbridge-Munsee land claim is located in the vicinity of the Madison County towns of Stockbridge and Munnsville; it lies within the boundaries of a much larger claim to some 250,000 acres by the Oneida Indian Nation of New York. While a lawsuit against the State of New York is a likely next step for the tribe, a call for comment to the band's Wisconsin offices was not returned by press time.

Last February, the Stockbridge-Munsees moved that the stay be lifted so that the proper legal claimant for the land might be determined. Kahn did not rule on which particular tribe is the rightful claimant, finding instead that the ongoing stay was not helping to resolve the case.

The stay will be terminated effective Dec. 1. "The court finds that this case must now go forward," Kahn wrote in his four-page decision. "The court hopes that by that time the United States will have decided whether it will intervene."

Kahn refused to appoint a mediator in the case, saying that forced arbitration is not likely to be successful. The administration of Governor George Pataki has steadfastly refused to negotiate the land claim with the Stockbridge-Munsees, citing the fact that they are federally recognized as a Wisconsin tribe.

The case stems from a 1986 lawsuit alleging that New York state illegally acquired the tribe's reservation lands in the 1800s. In 1995, the Stockbridge-Munsees requested that the proceedings be stayed so that they might pursue settlement negotiations while the U.S. Supreme Court was reviewing other land claim cases and to pursue settlement negotiations.

The Department of Interior has ruled twice, in 1997 and again in 2002, that the tribe's land claim is meritorious and has recommended that the Justice Department intervene on behalf of the Stockbridge-Munsees; Justice has not done so.

The Stockbridge-Munsees also hope to be a player in New York's high-stakes casino game; an application is pending at BIA to take 333 acres of land in the Town of Thompson in Sullivan County into trust, on which a $600 million casino has been proposed. The tribe has negotiated agreements with Thompson and with Waterford, Conn.-based developer Trading Cove Associates, but has been unsuccessful in luring Pataki to the bargaining table.

The Stockbridge-Munsee Band is descended from the original Mohican Indians whose territory extended south from Lake Champlain almost to Manhattan. The Mohicans lived on both banks of the Mahicannituck, now called the Hudson River; their lands ran westward to Schoharie Creek and eastward into Massachusetts, Vermont and Connecticut. After Henry Hudson first sailed up his namesake river in 1609, the pace of European colonization quickened; tribal members were eventually forced from their homelands. Many eventually settled near the town of Stockbridge in Western Massachusetts, from whence the band got its name. Members of the band fought on the side of the colonists during the American Revolution.

In the mid-1780s, according to the band's Web site, the Stockbridge Indians were again forced to relocate, this time settling in the vicinity of New Stockbridge in Upstate New York. In 1822, the band began its migration to northeastern Wisconsin, where it is located today. During the mid-1800s, a group of Munsee Indians were accepted into the tribe.

The tribe's business operations, all located in northeastern Wisconsin, include the North Star Casino, an 18-hole golf course and a gas station/convenience store.