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Law
Supreme Court overturns Oneida Nation case


The Oneida Nation of New York is examining its options in the wake of a devastating U.S. Supreme Court ruling that rejected the tribe's sovereignty, a top official said on Tuesday.

Keller George, an assistant to Oneida Nation representative Ray Halbritter, said the decision was still being reviewed. But he said it was unfair for the high court to extinguish the tribe's rights by claiming the tribe waited too long to assert authority over its 250,000-acre historic reservation.

"It seems to me that we have been trying over the years but have been blindsided or blocked in every aspect," George said in an interview at the Western Governors' Association summit on Indian gaming in Denver, Colorado. "I just don't understand how this court, in my view, is seeming to legislate by some of their decisions that they're making."

George, who also serves as president of the United South and Eastern Tribes, said the Oneidas, as far back as the early 1900s, sought to reclaim land illegally taken by the state of New York. "But we didn't get heard" until 1985, he said, when the Supreme Court ruled that the tribe could seek redress.

Since then, the tribe has reclaimed about 18,000 acres of the reservation promised by the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua. But the court yesterday said that taking the reacquired land off the local tax rolls and removing it from local jurisdiction would "seriously disrupt" the existing expectations of the non-Indian community now living in the area.

"The Oneidas long ago relinquished the reins of government and cannot regain them through open-market purchases from current titleholders," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the 8-1 majority.

The decision reverses a 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that favored the tribe. The case was sent back to the lower courts for further proceedings, which could include foreclosure on the land because the tribe hasn't paid property taxes to the city of Sherrill.

George wouldn't speculate on what might happen next but insisted there are some options. He said the tribe could always ask the Bureau of Indian Affairs to take the land into trust and protect it from alienation and taxation.

"We haven't worked it all of it out as of yet," George said in the interview. "However ... taking lands into trust is an option. We will look at all of our options and go from there."

The opinion yesterday contemplated that route and cited the BIA's process for taking land into trust by considering the impact on states, local governments and non-Indians. "Recognizing these practical concerns, Congress has provided a mechanism for the acquisition of lands for tribal communities that takes account of the interests of others with stakes in the area’s governance and well being," the court said.

"I think we're going to be OK and I'm always optimistic," George said in response.

Beyond George's comments, the tribe had little to say yesterday. "Certainly, the nation wishes the court had ruled differently," a statement read.

On the other hand, critics of the tribe and federal Indian policy were notably pleased. "The Court's decision answers one of the biggest questions in Indian law by upholding that there are only two sovereign governments under the United States Constitution," the Citizens' Equal Rights Alliance said in a statement. The group plans to discuss the ruling at its Washington, D.C., conference in May.

The lone dissent in the case was filed by Justice John Paul Stevens. He pointed out that the case was solely about taxation and that the majority essentially engaged in judicial activism by terminating the tribe's historic reservation and all rights associated with it.

"Without the benefit of relevant briefing from the parties, the Court has ventured into legal territory that belongs to Congress," Stevens wrote.

Justice David Souter filed a concurring opinion, only saying that the tribe's "inaction" contributed to the loss of its governmental rights.

Get the Decision:
Syllabus | Opinion [Ginsburg] | Concurrence [Souter] | Dissent [Stevens]

Relevant Links:
Oneida Nation - http://www.oneida-nation.net
NARF-NCAI Tribal Supreme Court Project - http://doc.narf.org/sc/index.html

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

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