Interior on May 30 announced its decision, that has been almost a decade in the making, in a letter from Department of Justice Attorney S. Steven Miskinis to Senior U.S. District Judge Lawrence Kahn. OIN had asked Interior to take 17,370 acres into trust in April 2005. Less than a week earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Sherrill v. Oneida that the tribe had waited too long to assert its claim of sovereignty over its historical reservation boundaries – 300,000 acres that were acknowledged under the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua and alienated over the years through violations of the 1790 Trade and Intercourse Act. The Supreme Court suggested that the nation seek land into trust for its fee lands.
The 13,004 acres include the Nation's Turning Stone Resort Casino in Verona and 32 acres near Oneida where most of the government and cultural offices are located. Interior first announced it would take the 13,000-plus acres into trust in 2008 after three years of investigating its social, economic and environmental impacts, an exceptional number of public hearings, and thousands of pages of documentation. A cluster of lawsuits were filed by Oneida and Madison counties and the state of New York challenging the decision and seeking to overturn it. The anti-Indian sovereignty group Upstate Citizens for Equality and two other non-governmental entities, also filed lawsuits challenging Interior’s decision.
Last year, however, Ray Halbritter, Oneida Nation representative and CEO of Nation Enterprises, parent company of Indian Country Today Media Network, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the signing of a monumental agreement that recognizes the Oneida Nation’s reservation, settles all outstanding litigation and resolves all disputes over property and sales taxes, including cigarette and fuel sales. The agreement which was approved in March by the state legislature, also resolves all disputes between the two sovereigns over land rights, tax issues, gaming exclusivity and profits. As part of the agreement, the state and towns dropped their lawsuits challenging Interior’s decision to take the 13,004 acres into trust for the Nation.
The lawsuits filed by Upstate Citizens for Equality and the two other non-governmental entities remain pending and won’t be affected by the land into trust ruling, Miskinis said.
“Placing the subject lands in trust will not have any effect on the proceedings before this Court,” Miskinis wrote to Kahn. He pointed to the Supreme Court ruling on Salazar v. Patchak which determined among other things that anyone can challenge the Interior Department for six years after it takes land into trust for the benefit of Indians.
The Oneida Nation land claim had its genesis in 1948 – two years after the creation of the Indian Claims Commission – when an OIN member wrote a letter to the Bureau of Indian Affairs requesting payment or return of the land illegally taken from the Oneidas by New York state.