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BIA official calls high court ruling 'quite depressing'

A senior Bureau of Indian Affairs official indicated on Wednesday that the agency is open to acquiring land into trust for the Oneida Nation in light of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling against the tribe.

George Skibine, the BIA's acting deputy assistant secretary for policy and economic development, spoke at the Western Governors' Association summit on Indian gaming in Denver, Colorado. Echoing comments made by other observers, he said the court's ruling was "quite depressing if you're an Indian advocate in many ways."

But he said the decision allowed the tribe and the BIA some options. The 8-1 opinion, written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg cited the BIA's process for acquiring land into trust by considering the impact on states, local governments and non-Indians.

"It was sort of a ray of hope for me," Skibine said of the language that appeared at the end of the opinion.

Skibine's comments were in line with those made by Keller George, a top Oneida Nation official and president of the United South and Eastern Tribes. In an interview, he said the tribe might consider asking the BIA to acquire the lands in trust status.

"We will look at all of our options and go from there," said Keller, who also attended the WGA summit.

The tribe has repurchased 18,000 acres within the 250,000-acre historic reservation that was illegally transferred to the state during the past two centuries. Keller said these properties are currently being held in "restricted" status under a section in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).

"We've had decisions by the bureau saying, 'Yes, it is Indian Country,'" Keller said in the interview. He added that it was "too early to tell" whether these lands would be affected by the high court's ruling.

In the decision, the majority referred to 25 CFR Section 151, which requires the BIA to take into account "the interests of others with stakes in the area's governance and well being" when acquiring trust lands for tribes. These section "provides the proper avenue for [the Oneida Nation] to reestablish sovereign authority over territory last held by the Oneidas 200 years ago," Ginsburg wrote.

"Essentially, that's an accurate description of what we look for in our regulations when a tribe asks for off-reservation land," Skibine said yesterday.

Skibine said the 151 regulations require consultation with local and state governments and tribes within a 50-mile radius of a proposed acquisition. In the case of the Oneida Nation, the BIA would likely consider the views of municipalities and non-Indians who have been opposed to the tribe's acquisition of property. The city of Sherrill, which took the case to the high court, has tried to impose property taxes and foreclose on the Oneida's reacquired land.

The same process might also apply to the Cayuga Nation of New York and the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma. Like the Oneidas, the two tribes have repurchased properties within their 64,000-acre historic reservation that was illegally transferred to the state of New York. Local officials have expressed opposition as the tribes opened bingo halls and convenience stores on the land.

The Cayugas and Seneca-Cayugas met yesterday with three other tribes -- the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe of New York, the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin and the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians from Wisconsin -- to talk about the ruling. They issued a joint statement blasting the court for overturning "fundamental bedrock principles of Indian law" and for essentially punishing the Oneida Nation for the state's illegal actions.

"The Court had earlier found that their lands were wrongly taken from them," the tribes said, referring to a 1985 decision that held the state and two counties liable.

Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians, also called the ruling a setback. "The very hostility and indifference of the United States to Indian tribes is now being used against Indian tribes as a justification for the dispossession of Indian lands," he said in a statement. "The passage of time should not make a difference in how justice is dealt �- what was right then should be right now."

Get the Decision:
Syllabus | Opinion [Ginsburg] | Concurrence [Souter] | Dissent [Stevens]

Relevant Links:
Oneida Nation -
NARF-NCAI Tribal Supreme Court Project -

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

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