Wisconsin Oneidas file suit against landowners

SYRACUSE, N.Y. ? In a stunning turn of events following a proposed land claim settlement between the State of New York, the Oneida Indian Nation of New York and the upstate counties of Madison and Oneida, the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin filed individual lawsuits against several private land-owners. This development marks the latest twist in the tribe's on-going land claim dispute.

"This is the last and final remedy we have available to us," said Gerald Danforth, Chairman of the Tribe in a press conference at a suburban Syracuse hotel. "I hope that they [the landowners] can understand how we feel backed into a corner, that we have to take this measure. The state has said it will defend them and indemnify them."

The lawsuits, filed Feb. 21 in the Federal District Court for Northern New York in Syracuse, name as defendants 20 private-property owners who hold a total of approximately 660 acres of land in non-contiguous parcels. This legal action comes in response to the Feb. 16 announcement of an agreement-in-principle that has realigned the players; former adversaries are now allies, and vice versa.

The seemingly rapid sequence of past week's events has dramatically reshaped alliances of the parties involved in the land claim. The Oneida Indian Nation of New York, which for years had borne the burden of the public's outcry, now stands firmly with the State of New York and Madison and Oneida Counties, and has even expressed support for the individual land-owners residing within the land-claim area.

On the other hand, the Oneidas of Wisconsin and the Canadian Oneida of the Thames suddenly find themselves, from their geographic and political distances, reacting to a proposed agreement that, although shaped by their previous involvement, did not have their participation this time around.

[Indian Country Today is owned by a corporate holding of the Oneida Indian Nation of New York.]

Upon announcing the recent land-claim settlement proposal, New York Gov. George Pataki hinted at this new alignment.

"I'm proud to announce the framework of an agreement that can put all of those decades of litigation and those centuries of disagreement behind us, and begin what should be ? and I

believe will be ? a new era of cooperation and partnership for the people of Central New York," the governor was quoted as saying in the Feb. 17 edition of (Syracuse) Post-Standard.

Immediately following the Wisconsin Oneida press conference, the New York Oneidas denounced the Wisconsin Oneida lawsuits as a ploy by "greedy outsiders" who "have been gone so long that they cannot find where their homeland is."

"This is a New York problem and we have created a New York solution," Ray Halbritter, Nation Representative, said in the press release. "It is distressing to think that the leadership of the Wisconsins would place greed above the good of all of the people of Central New York. They have made it very clear that they are only about money, and that they are making trouble while we are working on a solution."

Arlinda Locklear, land claims attorney for the Wisconsin tribe, declined to identify specific properties or name their owners, as service of pertinent legal documents is expected within a week. She did, however, explain the tribe's process for deciding which property owners to include in the lawsuits.

"We decided not to sue anybody who had acquired their property before March 4, 1985, the date of the Supreme Court decision, which we believe put everybody on notice about the claim," she said. In addition, the tribe excluded all residential uses of property, and all property used for governmental and public purposes, leaving fairly narrow set of property classifications against which to proceed. They include commercial and industrial property, lands classified for "entertainment uses," which includes things like golf courses and marinas, abandoned agricultural land and private forestland.

"We've selected the most valuable, based on tax-assessed values, of the parcels in those categories, on the assumption that those defendants are likely to have title insurance against this very claim," Locklear said.

The properties, which total approximately 660 acres in both Oneida and Madison counties, are not adjacent to each other. The parcels in question have been identified through information available in public records Locklear added, and if any are determined to be actually used for residential or agricultural purposes, the tribe is prepared to dismiss its legal action.

"We've delayed this step for as long as we possibly could with the pending hope that we could have engaged in negotiations that would end up in a settlement," said Danforth in his prepared remarks. "It's often not easy to do what the right thing is to do ? Like the current landowners in the claim area, Indian and non-Indian, we too, the Oneidas in Wisconsin, are burdened. And we too have felt the uncertainties, and we too have been harmed."

Regarding the recently announced settlement agreement, Danforth said he was "very happy" to learn that key differences between the counties, the state and the New York Oneidas had been resolved, as those conflicts were the reasons that general mediation failed two years ago. At the same time, however, he was disappointed that his group was not included in the "comprehensive settlement that directly affects Oneida citizens in Wisconsin. We were not invited to participate. That was just plain unacceptable to have discussions and decisions being made on something so significant, that impacts so many people and involving all the parties.

"I don't think you would have it any other way, either," he said, addressing the assembled group of journalists.

After settlement negotiations broke down and were declared at an impasse in March 2000, Danforth said the Wisconsin Oneidas suggested to the other parties involved that "we want to talk to the state and engage in a private settlement in a way that will not affect anybody else's interest."

When New York State announced that it would negotiate compacts for several new casinos in the state, Danforth said that his tribe approached state officials with a proposal "that we thought could provide another method to settle our interests in the claim." After an informal meeting in mid-January to pitch their proposal, a follow-up meeting, promised within two weeks, never materialized. "The two weeks came and went, and it's still unclear to us why that meeting never occurred," he said. "Had we been involved in the discussions and negotiations, I don't think we'd be here right now."

When asked if the tribe's desire for an upstate New York casino was the motivator behind the lawsuits, Danforth replied: "A casino had been crafted as a damages component, perhaps for the overall aspects of this case. But we also think its important to keep that issue separate ... We will not be perceived as selling out our land claim interests for a casino."

Given New York State's legislative approval for six Indian casinos, a great deal of intrigue surrounds the motives behind all the recent maneuvers. Although both the Wisconsin and New York Oneida would likely pursue any opening to develop an additional casino, in December the Wisconsin group proposed to Gov. Pataki a partial swap of a casino compact as compensation for its land claim.

In a Dec. 20 letter to Gov. Pataki, Danforth wrote: "We believe there exists a window of opportunity for the State and our Tribe to reach settlement of our long-standing issues. This settlement could include as casino as provided for under the recent State legislation, to substitute for a cash component of a settlement package."

Danforth said that the Wisconsin tribal government, land commission and community as a whole "struggled about filing these suits. But we're convinced however, that this is a necessary step to protect the interests of those we represent."

"We too want to cure this problem, a problem that has plagued our community and has plagued your community for far too many years," he said. "This is not a problem that we want to pass on to the next generation. We are absolutely prepared to engage in settlement discussions because we believe that settlement is in the best interests of everybody. We are, however, doing everything that we must do, under the limits of the law, to protect our interests. To lay a foundation to support our claim, we have to continue on the litigation trail. If we again must defend our claim in the courts then we will do so ? so that equal justice under the law can be administered. And that we all, at the end of this, can rise above injustices that have occurred in the past."

Halbritter, Nation Representative of the New York Oneidas, would not be moved. "New York will not succumb to threats and scare tactics designed to impose the selfish interests of the Wisconsin Oneidas over the interests of our own citizens ? Indian and non-Indian alike ? who want to live together with peace and respect," he said on Feb. 21. "Let there be no mistake ? we will stand united with property owners against adversaries who do not care about the well-being of Central New York."

When asked about what he would consider a "fair" settlement, Danforth declined to mention specifics, other than advocating a "negotiated settlement process that would bring all of our needs into that process."