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Judge protects Oneida Nation land from foreclosure
Monday, June 5, 2006

A federal judge halted foreclosure proceedings against the Oneida Nation on Friday, ruling that the tribe's reservation in upstate New York still exists.

The 250,000-acre reservation was set aside by a 1788 treaty and confirmed by the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua. Through transactions that were not confirmed by Congress, the tribe lost most of its land base.

But that doesn't mean the reservation has gone away, U.S. District Judge Paul Hurd wrote. In a 14-page decision, he said the tribe's properties cannot be taken away by local governments due to the unapproved land transactions and sovereign immunity.

"At issue in this litigation are 280 properties owned by the nation that are located within Oneida County. Part of the Oneida Indian Reservation, as reserved to the nation in the 1788 Treaty of Ft. Schuyler and confirmed in the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua, lies within the boundaries of Oneida County," Hurd wrote. "All of the 280 properties at issue here fall within the reservation."

"Oneida Indian Nation's reservation was not disestablished," an order accompanying the decision stated.

The ruling is a victory for the tribe two years after suffering defeat at the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices, by an 8-1 vote, said the tribe could not assert sovereignty over properties within its reservation without going through the land-into-trust process.

The Supreme Court's action prompted more than 20 municipalities in Oneida and Madison counties to ask for millions in property taxes. And it led the tribe to submit a land-into-trust application for more than 17,000 acres in the two counties.

A decision on the application is at least a year away but Hurd's ruling clears some big hurdles in the process because the Bush administration said it would not acquire the tribe's properties in trust pending unpaid property taxes or foreclosure proceedings.

The Supreme Court "unmistakably held that the lands at issue (property interests purchased ... on the open market) are subject to real property taxes," associate deputy secretary Jim Cason wrote in a June 2005 letter. "In the event these taxes are not paid, we believe such lands are subject to foreclosure."

Hurd has since issued two rulings covering the tribe's properties in Oneida and Madison counties. The first ruling came last July, when the judge said that land owned by one sovereign government can't be taken away by another government.

"The seizing of land owned by a sovereign nation strikes directly at the very heart of that nationís sovereignty," he wrote in the Oneida County case. Friday's decision affected Madison County.

With both rulings in place, the tribe reaffirmed its desire to settle its land claim over the 250,000-acre reservation. "The Oneidas are gratified by Judge Hurd's decisions in the Madison County and Oneida County cases and are confident they will be affirmed on appeal," the tribe said in a statement.

The tribe had filed lawsuits in state court over property taxes but said the federal court rulings "remove the need for any further litigation in state court." The Syracuse Post-Standard, however, reported on Saturday that a state judge is refusing to drop the cases.

Hurd's rulings face a major challenge before the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, which recently dismissed the 64,000-acre Cayuga land claim, relying on the Supreme Court's ruling in the Oneida land-into-trust case. Last month, the Supreme Court refused to accept an appeal sought by the Cayuga Nation of New York, the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe and the Bush administration.

Court Decision:
Oneida Nation v. Oneida County (June 2, 2006)

Bureau of Indian Affairs Documents:
Jim Cason / Mike Olsen (June 10, 2005)

Sherrill v. Oneida Nation Decision:
Syllabus | Opinion [Ginsburg] | Concurrence [Souter] | Dissent [Stevens]

Relevant Links:
Oneida Nation Trust - http://www.oneidanationtrust.com
Indian Nation Fee-to-Trust Land Acquisition Applications in New York State - http://www.dec.state.ny.us/website/ogc/lands.html
Oneida Nation, New York - http://www.oneida-nation.net

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