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Law
U.S. Supreme Court rejects another tribal land claim


The U.S. Supreme Court acted on its second Indian land claim in less than a month on Monday, this time refusing to hear the Seneca Nation's lawsuit.

Without comment, the justices rejected a petition filed by the Seneca Nation and the Tonawanda Band of Seneca Indians. The tribes, backed by the federal government, said the state of New York purchased more than 40 islands in the Niagara River, including the 19,000-acre Grand Island, without Congressional approval.

A federal judge sided with the state. The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals agreed in September 2004, ruling that the Senecas didn't hold title to the islands at the time they were sold to New York because the tribes had already given them up in treaties with the British.

"Since we find that the islands were not within the boundaries of the 'property of the Seneka nation' as of the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua, and that therefore New York's title remained undisturbed by that treaty, we conclude that its 'purchase” of the islands did not violate the Non-Intercourse Act," the 2nd Circuit wrote.

The high court's action leaves the negative decision in place. It marks the second time a 2nd Circuit ruling against a tribal claim will go unheard -- just last month the justices refused to consider the 64,000-acre Cayuga case.

Tribal leaders in New York are troubled by the developments. Jim Ransom, a chief of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, called the current Supreme Court "the most anti-Indian" in the history of the United States.

The Mohawks are just one of several tribes with claims to millions of acres in New York. The Oneida Nation is still in court after more than 30 years while the Onondaga Nation only recently filed suit.

The Seneca Nation has previously settled two land claims, separate from the Grand Island suit. Meanwhile, the Cayuga Nation and the Oklahoma-based Seneca-Cayuga Tribe lost their case when the 2nd Circuit said they too long to file their claim.

Other tribal land, hunting, fishing and other claims throughout the country could face similar fates if the courts adopt stances set by the 2nd Circuit. But tribal leaders note that each case is different, as noted by the fact-specific examination of treaties, laws and history in the Seneca's Grand Island lawsuit.

In more Supreme Court news, the justices refused one other Indian law cases on Monday. It involved a former employee of the Tohono O'odham Nation of Arizona who tried to sue the tribe after she was fired. The Arizona Court of Appeals ruled that the tribe retained sovereign immunity from suit and that the state courts lacked jurisdiction to hear the case.

2nd Circuit Decision:
Seneca Nation v. New York (September 9, 2004)

Relevant Links:
Seneca Nation - http://www.sni.org
NARF-NCAI Tribal Supreme Court Project - http://doc.narf.org/sc/index.html