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BIA set to rule on Oneida Nation land-into-trust request

The Bush administration is set to make a decision on one of the most controversial land-into-trust applications in Bureau of Indian Affairs history.

In a Federal Register notice published today, the BIA announced the release of a final environmental impact statement on the Oneida Nation's land-into-trust application. The document identifies a "preferred" option to acquire 13,086 acres in trust for the New York tribe.

The option is less than the 17,000-plus acres the tribe sought in its application. But it's a lot more than the 1,000 acres proposed by two local counties.

The BIA is under no obligation to adopt any option though the preferred option indicates where the agency is headed. Associate deputy secretary Jim Cason will make a final decision on March 25 -- about three years after the tribe submitted its written request.

"The purpose of the proposed action is to help provide for the [Oneida] Nation's cultural and social preservation, expression and identity, political self-determination, self-sufficiency, and economic growth by providing a tribal land base and homeland over which the nation exercises tribal sovereignty," today's Federal Register notice states.

The journey began after the tribe lost a major U.S. Supreme Court case in March 2005. By an 8-1 vote, the justices said the tribe had to go through the land-into-trust process before exercising sovereignty within its 250,000-acre ancestral reservation.

"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," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, referring to the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, which authorized the land-into-trust process.

The Oneida Nation, like other tribes in New York, lost its ancestral reservation through illegal land transactions by the state. But thanks to gaming and non-gaming revenues, the tribe repurchased more than 17,000 acres on the open market in Oneida and Madison counties.

The tribe believed the newly acquired properties retained their Indian Country status since the ancestral reservation was never terminated by Congress. The Supreme Court decision forced the tribe to go to step one in the lengthy land-into-trust process.

Without trust land status, the tribe would have to pay property taxes to local governments and submit to local and state laws. The tribe has since entered into agreements with some communities to address the taxation and jurisdiction issues pending resolution of the land-into-trust application.

The state of New York, however, claims the BIA has no authority to act on the application. Echoing arguments being made in another land-into-trust case that the Supreme Court is being urged to hear, the state say the IRA doesn't apply to New York tribes.

Oneida and Madison counties don't want the BIA to take much action either. Their proposed option limits the tribe to 1,026 acres, including the Turning Stone Resort & Casino, some housing sites and some cultural sites.

Regardless how the decisions turns out, litigation is likely. The Citizens Equal Rights Alliance and the Central New York Fair Business Association already sued the Interior Department to stop action on the application but judge said the case was filed too early.

The final environmental impact statement will be available online at or Comments are being accepted until March 24.

Federal Register Notice:
Notice of Availability of Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Proposed Transfer From Fee to Trust of Parcels Owned by the Oneida Indian Nation of New York in Oneida and Madison Counties, New York (February 22, 2008)

Relevant Documents:
Final EIS (March 2008) | Draft EIS (November 2006)

From the Indianz.Com Archive:
BIA official calls high court ruling 'quite depressing' (March 31, 2005)
Major defeat for Oneida Nation in Supreme Court case (March 30, 2005)

Relevant Links:
Oneida Nation Trust -
Oneida Nation, New York -
Indian Nation Fee-to-Trust Land Acquisition Applications in New York State -
Oneida Indian Nation's Land Into Trust Application, Madison County -

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