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Judge backs Oklahoma tribe's claim in New York

An Oklahoma tribe whose ancestors left New York more than a century ago has a right to claim land in the state, a federal judge ruled on Wednesday.

In a 19-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Neal P. McCurn reaffirmed the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe as a "successor in interest" to the historic Cayuga Nation. He rejected an attempt to revisit an issue already decided as part of the tribe's 64,000-acre land claim.

"To allow the parties to re-litigate the tribe's successorship at this late date would clearly create 'unnecessary judicial waste' and as such, the court declines to do so," McCurn wrote.

But the judge left open the question of whether the tribe can assert sovereign rights on 229 acres it recently purchased in New York. McCurn said he would decide whether the land is Indian Country at a later date, preserving a temporary restraining order barring further development of the property in Aurelius.

The move gives hope that the tribe will be able to open a Class II facility on the land, or a Class III facility elsewhere in the state. Gov. George Pataki (R) was near a deal that would settle the land claim in exchange for gaming rights but the talks fell apart after the Cayuga Nation objected.

The New York-based Cayugas are challenging the right of the Seneca-Cayugas to re-establish ties in the state. In the case decided yesterday, the Cayugas sided with local officials against the proposed Aurelius gaming facility.

The New York Cayugas are not challenging the Seneca-Cayuga's right to a monetary judgment for the loss of the 64,000 acres under the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua. The two tribes were awarded $247.9 million by McCurn but have asked the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals for up to $1.7 billion.

The New York Cayugas instead say their relatives lost all sovereign rights after moving to Ohio, and later, to Oklahoma. The Cayugas recently opened their own gaming facility on ancestral territory and are seeking more development.

The debate is one that is becoming more common throughout Indian Country. In a practice derided as "reservation shopping," more and more tribes have claimed land in other states and say they will settle for gaming and other rights.

So far, no court or federal agency has ever allowed a tribe to operate a casino in another state. In April, the National Indian Gaming Commission ordered the Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma to shut down its casino in Kansas, a move that led to a state raid of the facility.

McCurn mostly shied from the issue in his ruling yesterday. But he noted that the tribe's right to receive a land claim award is "inextricably intertwined with its alleged right to exercise sovereign jurisdiction over that land because the tribe�s right to both monetary damages as well as its alleged tribal sovereign jurisdiction of the land emanate from the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua."

At least two other out-of-state tribes have staked claims in New York. The Oneida Nation of Wisconsin and the Stockbridge Munsee Band of Mohicans cite treaties that promised them land in the state.

Pataki, softening his stance against negotiating with out-of-state tribes, has talked with both tribes about a possible settlement involving one of three casinos in the Catskills. Pataki lobbied heavily for the casinos in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks but none has come to fruition.

Get the Decision:
Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma v. Aurelius (September 1, 2004)