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Judge affirms Cayuga Nation's sovereign rights
Monday, April 26, 2004

A federal judge on Friday upheld the sovereign rights of the Cayuga Nation of New York, paving the way for the tribe to open a gaming facility on ancestral territory.

In a closely watched decision, U.S. District Judge David Hurd said the state lacks jurisdiction over the tribe's recent purchase of a property within its former reservation. The land, illegally taken by the state over the past 200 years ago, is Indian Country, free from all zoning, taxation and other local restrictions, he ruled.

"Since Congress has not divested the Cayugas of their title to the land claim area, it stands to reason that the reservation status of that land remains in place to this day," Hurd wrote in the 41-page decision. A two-page order further prohibited local officials to from "applying or enforcing" any laws on the tribe.

The ruling allows the tribe to make renovations to an old auto parts store located in the village of Union Springs. The tribe plans to convert the store into a Class II gaming facility, which does not require state consent.

The ruling also means the tribe can purchase land within its former 64,000-acre former reservation and not worry about state interference. The purchase of the old store is the first time the tribe has held title to any parcel in more than 100 years.

Union Springs officials oppose the tribe's plans and an appeal is likely. The village claimed the reservation had been disestablished by a subsequent treaty but Hurd rejected the argument.

In the decision, Hurd cited a related case involving the Oneida Nation of New York, which has a 250,000-acre land claim. The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 decision last July, held that the tribe's reservation still exists and forbade the city of Sherrill from imposing property taxes on the tribe's recent land acquisitions.

The city has appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. In February, the justices were set to announce whether they would accept the case but instead asked the Bush administration for its views. A brief from Solicitor General Ted Olson hasn't been filed.

The Sherrill precedent plays a critical role in another tribe's case involving ancestral territory. The Seneca-Cayuga Tribe, based in Oklahoma, purchased 229 acres of the former Cayuga reservation and plans to open a Class II facility there. Plans have been halted pending court resolution.

The Cayuga Nation and the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe are parties to the land claim. A federal judge awarded the tribes $247.9 million, in fair market rent value plus interest, for their losses stemming from the 1794 Treaty of Canandaiuga.

The 2nd Circuit earlier this month heard an appeal of the claim. The tribes say they should be awarded $1.7 billion and title to the land. The state of New York argues the claim is outright invalid.

The Cayuga Nation doesn't support the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe's return to New York. The Cayugas claim their relatives gave up any rights once they left the state under the 1838 Treaty of Buffalo Creek.

This dispute was not before Hurd but he wrote that the treaty doesn't mandate removal to the west even though some Cayuga ancestors settled in Kansas before ending up in Oklahoma. Unlike other treaties, "the language regarding the Cayugas evidences no promise to remove at all," he wrote.

"Therefore, there is no substantial or compelling evidence in the text of the Buffalo Creek Treaty of congressional intent to terminate the Cayugas' reservation," he added.

The National Indian Gaming Commission, which regulates the $15 billion tribal casino industry, had given approval to the Cayuga Nation for Class II gaming. But it was put on hold because the tribe's ordinance was not site specific. With the court ruling in hand, NIGC's final approval of the Union Springs facility is almost certain.

Get the Decision in Cayuga Indian Nation v. Village of Union Springs:
Decision | Order (April 23, 2004)

Related Decision in Oneida Indian Nation v. City of Sherrill:
Majority Opinion | Van Graafeiland Dissent

Related Stories:
Cayuga Nation's plans for land worry some in village (04/07)
Report: Seneca-Cayuga Tribe has bigger plans in store (04/06)
Tribes ask court for $1.7B and title to lost land (04/01)
Federal appeals court to hear Cayuga land claim (3/31)
NIGC accused of 'ducking' casino land issue in N.Y. (03/23)
Seneca-Cayuga Tribe seeks deal to end land claim (03/19)
Judge in N.Y. hears Seneca-Cayuga land dispute (03/12)
Seneca-Cayuga Tribe could fund arts center in N.Y. (2/26)
Arguments set for appeal of Cayuga land claim (2/25)
Seneca-Cayuga Tribe makes offer to Pataki (11/19)
Court orders Cayuga Nation to stop renovations (10/23)
Cayuga Nation proposes land claim, tax settlement (10/21)
Cayuga Nation buys another gas station (10/06)
Bill would terminate out-of-state sovereign rights (09/26)
Appeals expected in Seneca-Cayuga Tribe's land case (09/10)
Judge to decide fate of Seneca-Cayuga Tribe's land (9/9)
Cayuga tribes slowly reclaiming ancestral territory (09/02)
Okla. tribe says court decision bolsters case (07/24)
Cayuga Nation welcomes Indian Country decision (07/23)
Oneida Nation wins treaty lands case (7/22)

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