Judge says Oneida can't have land back 5-22-07

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - The Oneida Indian Nation cannot reclaim land the tribe sold more than a century ago, but it may be entitled to profits the state made reselling that property, a federal judge has ruled.

Both the Oneidas and New York state officials claimed victory in the ruling issued Monday by U.S. District Judge Lawrence Kahn, who determined the Oneidas have no rights to 250,000 acres in Madison and Oneida counties. “The Oneida people are gratified by the federal court ruling,” said nation spokesman Mark Emery. “Although one count was dismissed, the land claim is alive and well and has a value exceeding a half a billion dollars.”

The Oneidas claim the state underpaid them by about $500,000. With compound interest, that is worth $500 million today, according to the Oneidas.

Local officials disagreed.

“What this finally does is put to rest the claim against land, and that is a monumental victory,” said John Campanie, Madison County attorney. “The essence of this decision is that the land is no longer at risk.”

The state will appeal Kahn's ruling on the Oneidas' compensation, said Christine Pritchard, spokeswoman for Gov. Eliot Spitzer.

Kahn took the unusual step of immediately granting both sides the ability to appeal. Normally, rulings on motions are considered intermediate steps in a court case and can't be appealed until after the final verdict.

Kahn said he had no choice but to reject the Oneidas' claim to possession of the land after two higher court decisions - involving the Cayugas and the Oneidas - said the claims were too late. He said, though, that the Oneidas had suffered “betrayals” and deserved compensation.

“The court does not believe that the higher courts intended to or have barred (the Oneidas) from receiving any relief,” Kahn said.

Kahn also dismissed both Madison and Oneida counties from the case, leaving the state as the only defendant.

The New York Oneidas joined with Oneida tribes from Canada and Wisconsin in a 1974 lawsuit claiming that more than 250,000 acres of Oneida land had been illegally purchased by New York state in the 18th and 19th centuries. The case has gone twice to the U.S. Supreme Court, which said in 1985 that the Oneidas could pursue their claim in federal court.

While the case has languished in the courts, a separate suit involving the New York Oneidas and the city of Sherrill went to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2005, the high court ruled that the tribe could not claim sovereignty on aboriginal land it has purchased because it had waited too long.

Later that year, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals relied on the Sherrill decision to throw out the Cayuga Indian land claim.

Since then, both the Oneidas and Cayuga have pursued federal “land trust” status. Land granted such status would be exempt from taxes and government regulation.