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Wisconsin Oneidas' lawsuits dismissed

ALBANY, N.Y. ? Landowners in two upstate New York counties were breathing easier on Sept. 5 after a series of land-claim lawsuits filed by the Oneida Indian Tribe of Wisconsin were dismissed in federal district court here. The tribe was also enjoined from filing further actions against other private landowners within the Oneida land claim area, comprising some 250,000 acres primarily in Madison and Oneida counties east of Syracuse.

"The time has come to put an end to the tactics long employed by the [plaintiffs] in these land claim actions that are meant only to scare the local population and delay resolution of the ultimate issues," wrote Judge Lawrence Kahn of the Northern District of New York. In his strongly worded 17-page decision, Kahn called the Wisconsin Oneidas' legal action against some 60 landowners "disingenuous at best."

This action, the latest in the ongoing Oneida land claim saga, could force the Wisconsin tribe into accepting a settlement it says it does not want.

On Feb. 16, Republican Governor George Pataki and Oneida Nation of New York Representative Ray Halbritter announced an agreement-in-principle to end the long-standing Oneida claim over the tribe's ancestral homelands in upstate New York. Under the proposal, the New York Oneidas would receive $225 million and would be allowed to acquire additional land within the claim area, with certain agreed-upon limitations. The Wisconsin Oneidas would receive $250 million but would receive no land in New York State. The Oneida of the Thames, a Canadian band, would receive $25 million and no land. Payment of the funds would be made jointly by the state and federal goverments.

The Wisconsin and Thames groups were upset at not being included in the settlement negotiations. Other aspects of the settlement remain undecided; for example, federal officials have said that Washington will not contribute funds to pay the tribes.

Five days later, the Wisconsin tribe sued the first 20 (the group of defendants would eventually number 60) of targeted property owners with lands in the claim area.

"This is the last and final remedy we have available to use," said Gerald Danforth, former tribal chairman, after the first lawsuits were filed.

The Wisconsin Oneidas had sought either land or a casino in New York; now it looks as though they'll get neither.

Last October, Gov. Pataki announced that the state would begin gaming compact negotiations for six new casinos in the western and Catskill regions. The state's post-Sept. 11 financial problems have forced political leaders to secure new revenue sources; a hefty percentage of gaming winnings was proposed as a solution. A deal for the three western casinos has been signed with the Seneca Nation of Indians, who are preparing to open gambling centers in Niagara Falls, Buffalo and an undisclosed reservation location.

No deals for any of the proposed Catskill casinos have been finalized yet, although the New York Oneidas, who already operate the Turning Stone Casino Resort in Verona, and the St. Regis Mohawks are among the tribes believed to be in the running.

[Indian Country Today is owned by Four Directions Media Inc., an enterprise of the Oneida Indian Nation of New York.]

The Bureau of Indian Affairs has never approved a casino for a tribe in a state other than where it is recognized. Although the Oneidas' ancestral lands are in what is now New York, the Wisconsin tribe is federally recognized as residing in that mid-western state.

The Wisconsin Oneidas, who number about 15,000, operate a successful bingo and casino operation not far from Green Bay. The tribe also owns a number of other economic enterprises, including a chain of convenience shops, a printing plant, a 32-acre retail/industrial park, and a farm.