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Law
U.S. Supreme Court refuses to clarify tribal claims


Tribal claims across the nation face an uncertain future after the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to hear a critical case.

Without comment, the justices declined a petition filed by the Cayuga Nation of New York and the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma. Backed by the federal government, the tribes sought to revive their claim to 64,000 acres in New York.

A federal judge had ordered the state to pay $248 million for taking the land without the approval of the United States. But the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, in a split decision that now stands, barred the tribes from seeking money damages for the stolen land.

Tribes elsewhere in the nation face similar fates. Land, water, hunting and other types of claims could be dismissed if unfavorable precedents set by the 2nd Circuit are adopted by more courts.

"The Supreme Court, in refusing to accept the Cayuga appeal, has established itself as the most anti-Indian court in the history of the United States," said Jim Ransom, a chief of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, whose land claim is pending.

Simliar alarms were raised by the National Congress of American Indians. In a brief that urged the high court to accept the case, NCAI said the 2nd Circuit's "unprecedented ruling" threatens a slew of land, water, natural resource and other claims.

"This legally unsupportable result would be disastrous to Indian tribes across the country," the brief stated.

In New York alone, the Mohawks, the Oneida Nation, the Onondaga Nation, the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians from Wisconsin and the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin are purusing claims to millions of acres of stolen land. All have engaged in settlement talks with the state.

But if the cases remain in court, they will have to survive two tests set by the 2nd Circuit: whether the tribes waited too long to file suit and whether the claim is too "disruptive" to non-Indians.

Similar standards could be applied in other circuits. In Ohio, which is part of the 6th Circuit, the state is fighting land and hunting claims filed by the Ottawa Tribe and the Eastern Shawnee Tribe, both of Oklahoma. Rulings on motions to dismiss are pending.

The 3rd Circuit recently dealt with a land claim filed by the Delaware Nation of Oklahoma. Unlike the 2nd Circuit however, the court bypassed the time issue when it dismissed the tribe's claim to land in Pennsylvania earlier this month.

Elsewhere, tribes have filed or are contemplating lawsuits over water, hunting, gathering and other treaty or aboriginal rights. The Department of Justice, in its briefs to the Supreme Court, had warned that the 2nd Circuit's precedents "may have deleterious impacts in future litigation."

The 2nd Circuit's ruling was based on a Supreme Court decision involving the Oneida Nation. The tribe has bought more than 17,000 acres in its land claim area and asserted jurisdiction over the properties.

In March 2005, the justices ruled 8-1 that the tribe had to go through the land-into-trust proces before claiming sovereignty. But language in the ruling that spoke of the passage of time between the loss of the land and the tribe's purchases, as well as the potential "disprutive" effects to the non-Indian community was used by the 2nd Circuit to dismiss the Cayuga claim.

"The Supreme Court's recent decision," the 2nd Circuit wrote by a 2-1 vote, "has dramatically altered the legal landscape" of tribal claims.

The Oneida Nation and the Cayuga Nation have since filed land-into-trust applications for their land purchases. The state of New York and local communities are opposing the applications, citing the recent court rulings. Decisions by the Bureau of Indian Affairs could be years away.

Supreme Court Briefs:
Cayuga Indian Nation of New York v. Pataki

Cayuga Land Claim Decision:
Cayuga Nation v. New York (June 28, 2005)

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

Relevant Links:
NARF-NCAI Tribal Supreme Court Project - http://doc.narf.org/sc/index.html
Indian Nation Fee-to-Trust Land Acquisition Applications in New York State - http://www.dec.state.ny.us/website/ogc/lands.html