Two recent negative court rulings should not impact potential settlements for some of the largest land claims in the nation, tribal leaders said on Thursday.
At a House Resources Committee hearing, representatives of the Oneida, Mohawk and Cayuga tribes said their claims to ancestral land in New York remain valid. They pushed for resolution of their lawsuits, some of which date back 30 years.
"We live next door to our non-Indian neighbors," testified Ray Halbritter, the representative of the Oneida Nation of New York. "Our children attend the same schools and we shop at the same stores.
Consequently, we who live here on our homelands more than any other party want an equitable resolution to a decades-old conflict."
But recent legal developments have shifted the legal landscape in New York. The U.S. Supreme Court on March 29 ruled that the Oneida Nation cannot revive its sovereignty over 250,000 acres of stolen land without going through the land-into-trust process. The tribe has since been hit with
millions of dollars in tax bills by local governments who say the tribe's properties fall under their jurisdiction.
The 8-1 ruling led to an even more devastating one from the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. On June 28, the court voted 2-1 to terminate the 64,000-acre Cayuga land claim, saying the Cayuga tribes waited too long to file suit.
James Ransom, the chief of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, said the two decisions won't impact his tribe's claim for several reasons. He said concerns about local governance being "disrupted"
by tribal sovereignty aren't an issue due to the ongoing Indian character of the land.
"The Akwesasne Mohawks have had and still have a strong presence within their claim area," he said. "We have never moved from our ancestral lands."
Christina Danforth, the chairperson of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, acknowledged that the rulings have required some changes to the tribe's proposed settlement. But she was confident that the state, and eventually Congress, would support a deal that allows the tribe to exercise sovereignty over ancestral lands.
"We entered into the claim on behalf of all Oneida people at the time all Oneida people in all Oneida communities across the United States were unified," Danforth told the committee. She said the Oneida people, regardless of their location, still have a valid claim to land in New York.
LeRoy Howard, the chief of the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma, called the ruling by the 2nd Circuit a "major setback." "We find that decision wrong and insulting and we intend to fight on in courts and do everything we can to have that decision overturned," he said.
Yet he believed resolution to the tribe's claim can still be reached. However, he said no talks have been held with the state since the decision was issued. The tribe, like the Wisconsin Oneidas, had
previously reached a deal with Gov. George Pataki (R), who submitted a written statement to the committee.
The Bush administration was represented by Michael Olsen, the acting principal deputy assistant secretary at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He told the lawmakers that the United States continues to stand behind the claims.
He also said there is no legal impediment that would prevent the tribes that currently live outside of New York from returning to the state and exercising some form of authority. The deals, as previously proposed, would allow the out-of-state tribes to open casinos in the Catskills.
"Our feeling is that if ... the tribes and the state reach an agreement that would allow for these tribes to obtain land in the state of New York ... and if Congress blesses that, then we can support land being taken into trust as part of the settlement," he testified.
"The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act specifically provides for that," he
At the same time, he said "additional discussion" is needed before gaming could occur on that land.
A provision in the law allows gaming to be conducted on lands taken into trust as part of a land claim settlement. The Seneca Nation of New York, in a deal with the state, has exercised that provision.
Some committee members, including chairman Rep. Richard Pombo (R-California), voiced concerns about the precedent that would be set if the federal government allowed a tribe to open a
casino in a state where it is not currently based. Since the passage of IGRA in 1988, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the National Indian Gaming Commission have never allowed such gaming to occur.
But in at least two instances, the BIA has acquired trust lands and the NIGC has recognized tribal sovereignty for out-of-state lands. In both cases, the tribes are based in Oklahoma and their out-of-state lands are located in Kansas. The tribes have been denied gaming rights on the lands.
Pombo has held a series of hearings on off-reservation gaming and out-of-state gaming, which he said threaten tribal sovereignty. He has circulated a draft bill that would modify the section of IGRA that deals with gaming on land claims and on other lands.
Yesterday, he took a strong position on land claims and asserted Congressional authority over any potential settlement. "Members of this committee have a right to know what is being proposed in any settlement talks," he said. "This is not going to be a committee of rubber stamp."
When Robert Chicks, the president of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians from Wisconsin, said that politicians in New York seem even more unwilling to settle the land claims in light of recent developments, Pombo issued a challenge.
"They can either be part of it or they can watch," he said.
Ray Halbritter Testimony
(July 14, 2005)
Cayuga Nation Decision:Cayuga
Nation v. New York
(June 28, 2005)
Oneida Nation Decision:Syllabus