Federal court rejects Oneidas’ historic land claim in New York

By George M. Walsh
Albany, New York (AP) August 2010

A federal appeals court ruled during August that the Oneida Indian Nation isn’t entitled to 250,000 acres in upstate New York or compensation for the aboriginal land it claimed was illegally purchased by the state in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a 2007 ruling on the land claim and went on to say the state can’t be sued for the half-billion dollars the tribe said it is owed. The ruling is the latest in a case filed in the early 1970s by the Wisconsin, New York and Ontario Oneidas. They claimed New York underpaid by about $500,000 for the land in Madison and Oneida counties, a sum worth $500 million now with interest compounded.

Three years ago, U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Kahn rejected the land claim based on earlier rulings that it was too late. But he said the Oneidas had suffered “betrayals” and deserved compensation. Kahn also dismissed both counties from the case, leaving the state as the only defendant. The state appealed to the 2nd Circuit.

Mark Emery, a spokesman for the Oneidas, said Tuesday there had been no decision yet on whether to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear an appeal after a similar ruling against the Cayugas in 2005.

The circuit court’s decision isn’t expected to affect the lucrative Turning Stone Resort and Casino or other nation businesses on land bought in recent years. The federal government has agreed to take about 13,000 of those 17,000 acres into trust for the Oneidas, which would make it free from taxation and regulation. A court challenge to that designation by the U.S. Department of Interior is pending.

“This was a claim for money damages, and the court decided that money damages are not available to compensate the Oneidas for the illegal taking of their aboriginal lands. It does not affect the status of nation lands,” the Oneidas said in a statement. “The Nation continues to pursue federal trust to protect these lands.”

The Oneidas’ claim meant uncertainty for non-Indian residents of the counties, who feared eviction if the tribe prevailed.

“I think this does effectively kill the land claim,” David Vickers, president of Upstate Citizens for Equality, a group that has challenged the Oneidas on land and tax issues, told the Syracuse Post-Standard. “These claims are based on ancient and disputed interpretations of history and fact, and law can only reach one fair conclusion, and that is to dismiss them.”

The appeals court ruling was 2-to-1, with Justice Nina Gershon dissenting.

“With this decision, the majority forecloses (the Oneidas) from bringing any claims seeking any remedy for their treatment at the hands of the state,” she wrote. She agreed with rejection of the land claim, but said the Oneidas had a right to compensation.