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Oneida Nation sees support in Bush administration brief

The Bush administration is siding with the Oneida Nation of New York in a treaty rights case that other tribes have relied on to restore their ancestral homelands.

The U.S. Supreme Court is being asked to review a dispute involving the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua. At issue is whether land the Oneida Nation purchases within the treaty area is considered Indian Country, free from state and local taxation.

In a 2-1 ruling issued last July, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals decided in the tribe's favor. The majority said that the reservation set aside by the treaty "remains in force."

The ruling was a setback to the city of Sherrill, which tried to impose property taxes on the tribe's land. The city then petitioned the Supreme Court to take the case but the justices asked the Bush administration for its views.

On May 28, the Department of Justice responded by urging the U.S. Supreme Court not to get involved. Government lawyers said the newly acquired land "is entitled to the same immunity from state and local taxation that tribal land in a reservation presumptively enjoys."

In the brief, the Bush administration was quick to point out that the lower court's decision was limited to taxation. "The court did not consider, and therefore did not decide, what, if any, additional consequences might flow from the fact that the tribally owned parcels in this case fall within a federally recognized reservation," Solicitor General Ted Olson wrote.

But other tribes are using the 2nd Circuit ruling to bolster their claims for gaming rights and other sovereign attributes normally associated with a reservation. Just last month, the Cayuga Nation -- landless for more than 150 years -- opened a high-stakes bingo hall on land within its treaty area. The Seneca-Cayuga Tribe, based in Oklahoma, hopes to do the same.

At least in the case of the Cayuga Nation, the courts are listening. In April, a federal judge, citing the Oneida case, ruled that local officials couldn't block the tribe from opening the gaming facility. A ruling in the Seneca-Cayuga case is pending.

If the high court stays out of the dispute, the Cayuga Nation's bid would be strengthened. The village of Union Springs, where the bingo hall is located, has appealed to the 2nd Circuit but it is unlikely the court would arrive at a different opinion than the one reached in the Oneida case.

The Seneca-Cayuga Tribe, on the other hand, represents more of a challenge. No court has yet to rule in favor of a tribe seeking gaming or other rights in another state.

The issue is controversial as tribes nationwide look farther and farther away from their current locations in order to explore gaming opportunities. Tribes in Oklahoma, Kansas and Wisconsin have staked high-profile claims to land their ancestors once occupied.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs and the National Indian Gaming Commission have taken slightly contradictory views in the debate but have so far stayed out of the way in the New York cases.

The city of Sherrill has raised questions of jurisdiction, federal recognition and land claims in its appeal to the high court but the Department of Justice brief argues these are unrelated to the case. "Even if the court concluded that it may wish to revisit the complex issues surrounding the longstanding efforts of New York Indians to vindicate their possessory interests in their aboriginal lands, this case �-which involves taxation of land that the Tribe has reacquired �- would not be a suitable vehicle for resolution of the full range of those issues," the government says.

The next step is for the Supreme Court to distribute the case for review by the justices. The docket sheet does not yet indicate when an announcement would be made.

Relevant Documents:
Department of Justice Brief | Supreme Court Docket Sheet No. 03-855

Relevant Links:
Oneida Nation -

Decision in Oneida Indian Nation v. City of Sherrill:
Majority Opinion | Van Graafeiland Dissent

Get the Decision in Cayuga Indian Nation v. Village of Union Springs:
Decision | Order (April 23, 2004)