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Judge keeps Oneida land claim in New York alive

A federal judge on Monday refused to shut the door on the long-running Oneida land claim in New York.

In 1974, the Oneidas of New York, Wisconsin and Canada sued the state and two counties over 250,000 acres of stolen land. The tribes said Congress never authorized the transactions that whittled down the reservation they were promised by treaty.

After two trips to the U.S. Supreme Court and multiple attempts to settle, the case remained alive. But recent legal developments put the claim in doubt as the state and the counties sought an outright end to the suit.

Judge Lawrence E. Kahn acknowledged those developments in his 32-page opinion yesterday. He said the Supreme Court -- in a related Oneida case -- has raised concerns about the "disruptive" nature of tribal claims, a move that led the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals to dismiss the Cayuga land claim in New York.

Kahn, however, said he would not go that far. "The court does not believe that the higher courts intended to or have barred plaintiffs from receiving any relief; to do so would deny the Oneidas the right to seek redress for long-suffered wrongs," he wrote.

At the same time, Kahn agreed that the Supreme Court has foreclosed certain remedies for the Oneida losses. He rejected return of the land to the tribes and ejection of current landowners, agreeing in part with a motion filed by the state and the two counties.

On this point, Kahn said the Oneidas are not at fault, noting how they have "diligently" pursued their claim for decades. That appears to contrast with the Cayuga case, in which the 2nd Circuit said the tribes waited too long to file suit.

However, he said it doesn't matter when the Oneidas started seeking the return of their land -- it only matters that such remedies are "disruptive" in nature. "Past injustices suffered by the Oneidas cannot be remedied by creating present and future injustices," Kahn wrote.

But a major portion of the Oneida claim stays alive under the ruling. Kahn said the Supreme Court and the 2nd Circuit haven't blocked the Oneidas from seeking monetary damages based on the claim that they were inadequately compensated.

"This claim is best styled as a contract claim that seeks to reform or revise a contract that is void for unconscionability," Kahn wrote. "This type of contract claim is not disruptive."

Kahn said his court can "reform" the tribal-state land transactions through its "equitable power" in a non-disruptive way. The ruling gives the Oneidas an opening to prove they were "deceived" by the state and that any compensation they may have received was inadequate.

"The court will consider several factors when determining the fair market value of the land, which is critical to any finding regarding the inadequacy of the consideration; these are: the prices at which the land sold, the extent of the demand, the quality of the land and its use at the time, the price paid by the Government for similar land at about the same time under treaties with other Indians, and the prices paid by persons other than Indians buying similar land in the locality from private citizens," the ruling stated.

"If plaintiffs can establish their fair compensation claim for the challenged transactions, they are entitled to damages in the amount of the difference between the fair market value of the land at the time and the consideration received by the Oneida Indian Nation minus any offsets, including, but not limited to, sales costs incurred by the state," it continued.

Kahn authorized his order for appeal, giving any of the parties a chance to take it to the 2nd Circuit The plaintiffs are the Oneida Nation of New York, the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin and the Oneida First Nation in Thames, Ontario. The defendants are the state of New York and Madison and Oneida counties.

The Oneida Nation in New York has repurchased, on the open market, more than 17,000 acres of the reservation promised in the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua. The tribe has asked the Bureau of Indian Affairs to take the land into trust following a March 2003 Supreme Court decision that cited the "disruptive" nature of tribal claims. The court endorsed the land-into-trust process as a method for the Oneidas to reclaim sovereignty on ancestral territory.

Court Decision:
Oneida Nation v. New York (May 21, 2007)

Draft Environmental Impact Statement:
Oneida Nation of New York Conveyance of Lands Into Trust (November 2006)

Relevant Links:
Oneida Nation Trust -
Indian Nation Fee-to-Trust Land Acquisition Applications in New York State -
Oneida Nation, New York -

Sherrill v. Oneida Nation Decision:
Syllabus | Opinion [Ginsburg] | Concurrence [Souter] | Dissent [Stevens]