Oneida Nation wins approval of land-into-trust application
Three years after losing a major U.S. Supreme Court case, the Oneida Nation of New York declared success on Tuesday after winning approval of its controversial land-into-trust application.

The tribe lost most of the land within its 250,000-acre reservation through illegal state transactions. Hundreds of years after the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua, only about 32 acres remained.

Revenues from a successful casino and other business ventures enabled the tribe to purchase more than 17,000 acres of its ancestral territory. But the Supreme Court, a March 2005 decision, stopped the tribe from asserting sovereignty on those properties without first going through the land-into-trust process.

After a lengthy review process, the tribe finally received word yesterday that the Interior Department has agreed to take the land into trust. The decision covers about 13,000 acres, or most of the tribe's initial application.

"The Oneida people are sincerely grateful to everyone whose hard work has led to this initial step toward further securing our Oneida homelands," Ray Halbritter, the Oneida Nation's federally recognized representative, said in a statement.

The record of decision was signed by associate deputy secretary Jim Cason and deputy secretary P. Lynn Scarlett. The 73-page document, accompanied by a 24-page list of properties to be acquired and a 278 pages of public comments, states that it was in the best interest of the tribe and New York to acquire the land.

"The preferred alternative (Alternative I) reflects the balance of the current and short-term needs of the Nation to reestablish a sovereign homeland and the New York State and local government requests to establish a more contiguous and compact trust land grouping," the document said.

The acreage includes the Turning Stone Resort and Casino, several business, the tribe's main 32-acre area and large portions of farm lands, wetlands and hunting and fishing grounds. The properties covered by the preferred alternative are mostly contiguous, lessening jurisdictional conflicts.

Since the start of the process, the state and two counties have objected to the tribe's request. They proposed that the Bureau of Indian Affairs acquire a much smaller set of properties.

The state went so far as to claim that New York tribes aren't allowed to follow the land-into-trust process of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. A Supreme Court case that will be heard this fall addresses a similar argument that affects a tribe in Rhode Island.

"The United States has acquired land in trust in several of the original thirteen colonies under various statutory authorities, including Section 5 of the IRA," the record of decision states. "Thus, the Secretary clearly has discretionary authority to acquire the Nation’s lands in trust."

Legal challenges to the decision are brewing but the tribe reiterated its desire to settle all land issues. In his statement, Halbritter said the tribe is willing to "negotiate a limit on the amount, and locations, of future trust land acquisitions," rather than continue fighting with local governments and anti-Indian rights groups.

The tribe's lawsuit over the loss of the 250,000 acres is still pending in the courts after two trips to the Supreme Court and more than 30 years of litigation. The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals is due to hear oral arguments on June 3 to determine whether the state owes the tribe money for the land.

Assistant secretary Carl Artman, whose last day in office is Friday, did not participate in the decision. He is a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, which is part of the Oneida land claim and also wants land in trust in New York.

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

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)

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:

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]

Related Stories:
Editorial: Regulate Oneida Nation trust lands (5/16)
Editorial: Clarity on Oneida Nation land-into-trust (5/8)
Interior delays decision on Oneida land-into-trust (5/7)
Sen. Schumer seeks delay on Oneida land-into-trust (5/6)
Editorial: Questions on Oneida Nation land-into-trust (5/1)
Decision on Oneida land-into-trust due this week (4/28)
Wisconsin tribe objects to Oneida land-into-trust (4/25)
Rep. Acuri: Explaining Oneida land-into-trust rider (4/10)
Rep. Arcuri tried to block Oneida land-into-trust (4/9)
Cason 'elusive' on Oneida Nation decision (4/4)
BIA still reviewing Oneida Nation land-into-trust (3/31)
Oneida Nation, county meet for first time in years (3/28)
Oneida Nation asks BIA for all 17,000 acres in trust (3/25)
County discusses Oneida Nation land-into-trust (03/07)
Cason to follow through on Oneida land-into-trust (2/25)
BIA to rule on Oneida trust lands request (2/22)
Cason to brief counties on Oneida land-into-trust (2/22)