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Oneida Nation wins another decision in long-running land dispute

Filed Under: Law | National | Trust
More on: 2nd circuit, bia, donald trump, ilca, ira, land claims, land-into-trust, new york, oneida, supreme court, treaties
     
   

Ray Halbritter, right, serves as the official representative of the Oneida Indian Nation and as CEO of Oneida Nation Enterprises, the New York tribe's business arm. Photo by Oneida Indian Nation

The Oneida Nation can reacquire its ancestral territory through the land-into-trust process, a federal appeals court ruled on Wednesday.

In the latest ruling in a long-running dispute, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a slew of challenges raised by opponents in upstate New York. A panel of three judges reaffirmed the legality of the land-into-trust process against claims that it violates the U.S. Constitution and infringes on state sovereignty.

Writing for the majority, Judge Susan L. Carney said "we conclude that the federal government’s plenary power over Indian affairs extends to taking historic reservation land into trust for a tribe. That the entrustment deprives state government of certain aspects of jurisdiction over that land does not run afoul of general principles of state sovereignty, the Indian Commerce Clause, or the specific guarantees of the Enclave Clause."

The court also confirmed that the Oneidas are indeed a "tribe" of Indians. As such, they can benefit from the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 as well as the Indian Land Consolidation Act of 1983, Carney stated in the 42-page decision.

"We therefore conclude that the United States did not exceed its statutory authority by taking land into trust for the tribe — a tribe that indisputably qualifies as a 'tribe'" within the meaning of the two laws, Carney wrote.

The tribe was not named as a defendant in the lawsuit but the decision marks another victory for its efforts to restore its homelands, which were stolen by the state of New York through centuries of transactions that were never approved by the federal government. Although the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua promised a 300,000-acre for the Oneidas, they were left with just 32 acres in the early 1900s as a result of the illegal sales.

The tribe has slowly been reacquiring land within the reservation but opponents -- including local governments and citizen groups -- have fought the effort. One case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, resulting in the disastrous decision in Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation in March 2005.

In that case, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that the "Oneidas long ago relinquished the reins of government and cannot regain them" by simply repurchasing property within the reservation.

Despite the harsh language, Ginsburg endorsed the land-into-trust process as a way for the tribe to regain governmental authority. The Oneidas quickly filed an application, which was initially approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in May 2008.

The acquisition covers about 13,000 acres in two counties. It includes essential governmental properties, such as the tribe's headquarters, a successful gaming enterprise and other economic ventures that have helped fuel the reacquisition of its homelands.

The state and the two counties at one point opposed the application but they reached a settlement in 2013 that ended litigation and disagreements on land, tax and gaming issues. And the BIA finally placed the 13,000 acres in trust in 2014.

The case decided on Wednesday involved two towns that tried, unsuccessfully, to challenge the settlement. Another opponent is a group called Upstate Citizens for Equality.

The opponents could ask the 2nd Circuit to rehear the case. Or they could take the matter to the Supreme Court, which continues to operate with just eight justices following the death of Antonin Scalia.

Republicans have refused to confirm a replacement so president-elect Donald Trump will get to shape the nation's highest court after the takes office in January 2017. He has vowed to nominate justices in the mold of Scalia, who was hostile to tribal interests.

Turtle Talk has posted briefs from the case, Upstate Citizens for Equality v. United States of America.

2nd Circuit Court of Appeals Decision:
Upstate Citizens for Equality v. United States of America (November 9, 2016)


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