Opponents lining up to challenge Oneida land trust decision

By William Kates
Syracuse, New York (AP) 5-08

It was an idea born in the nation’s highest court and it’s likely headed back there.

Even before the announcement was hours old, a statewide citizen’s group and officials in Oneida County said they would go to court to challenge the decision May 20 by the U.S. Department of Interior to place 13,004 acres of upstate New York land into federal trust for the Oneida Indian Nation.

Meanwhile, New York state and Madison County officials said they were reviewing the 73-page decision.

“As far as the decision is concerned, we are reviewing it,” said Morgan Hook, a spokesman for Gov. David Paterson. “It would have been better if negotiations had taken place before the decision was issued, and now that the decision has been issued, those negotiations are going to be more difficult. But the state is hopeful the counties and tribe can still resolve this before the land is actually taken into trust.”

In April, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo told The Observer-Dispatch of Utica that he was prepared to sue the federal government if necessary to stop the transfer.

It was the U.S. Supreme Court in a 2005 ruling in a tax case involving the Oneidas and the city of Sherrill that suggested the tribe consider placing its reacquired ancestral lands into trust – a status that exempts the land from local and state taxes and regulations, but makes it subject to most federal laws.

“It seems likely that (Supreme Court) is where it will end up. Certainly, there’s more to come,” said Chris Vescey, director of Native American Studies at Colgate University.

Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente complained the Interior Department’s decision left too many issues open-ended, including the millions of dollars in back taxes the county claims it is owed by the tribe. He said the loss of tax revenues and the jurisdictional checkerboarding of Indian and non-Indian parcels would harm local communities.

“We will oppose this decision of the Department of the Interior through every possible legal and administrative means available to us,” Picente said. “All of us have an obligation to do everything possible to prevent implementation of a bad decision, a decision that does not resolve critical taxation and governance issues that must be addressed.”

Madison County attorney John Campanie said the county was analyzing the decision and considering its options.

“I am sorely disappointed that rather than productively” negotiate settlement, “the department seeks to impose this unprecedented decision on our communities,” Campanie said.

Upstate Citizens for Equality, a grass roots citizens group opposed to Oneida sovereignty, said it was already in the process of preparing a lawsuit. Opponents have 30 days to challenge the decision in court.

UCE contends the federal government does not have the authority to “diminish” New York state by taking its land and to put into trust for the Oneidas, calling the step unconstitutional.

“Politicians talk about negotiating a settlement to keep an illegal casino functioning. They talk about negotiating giving away New York state sovereign land. These are not negotiable items,” said David Vickers, the group’s president.

UCE and other opponents also argue that there are no laws governing the land trust process, only regulations devised by the interior department.

The trust process dates to the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, which was meant to help redress the loss of millions of acres of tribal land nationwide in the 1800s. There are more than 40 federal statutes that permit the Secretary of the Interior to take Indian tribal land, or land owned by individual Indians, in trust, according to the General Accounting Office.

The federal government holds over 66 million acres in trust for about 350 tribes, according to U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The 13,004 acres sit in “two relatively condensed clusters” and includes the tribe’s Turning Stone Resort and Casino in Verona and the nation’s 32-acre territory near Oneida, where many of its government and cultural offices are located.

The area contains about 80 percent of the nation’s housing, the majority of its government services, the casino and its four golf courses and four of the tribe’s 13 SavOn gas stations and convenience stores. It also includes about 9,700 acres of farmland.

The land amounts to about 1 percent of each county’s total acreage.

In a separate case, the Oneida’s 30-year-old land claim will be back in court on June 3 when the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals hears appeals from both the tribe and state.

Last year, U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Kahn ruled the Oneidas may be entitled to compensation for about 250,000 acres of ancestral land they claim the state illegally acquired. However, Kahn said the tribe had no right to evict any residents and take back title to the disputed land.

The Oneidas are challenging the dismissal of their possession claims while the state is appealing the portion of Kahn’s decision that says compensation may be in order.

Issues in the Oneida land claim have twice before gone to the Supreme Court, including the Sherrill case.