Oneida Nation begins land-into-trust process

The Oneida Nation of New York announced on Tuesday that it has started the land-into-trust process for properties within its treaty reservation, two weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the tribe.

The tribe's spokesperson, Mark Emery, said the move to seek trust status for the land comes in response to the high court's decision of March 29. "The Supreme Court detailed a roadmap for providing certainty regarding the Nation's rights in its lands, and the Nation is going to follow that roadmap," Emery said in a statement.

In the 8-1 decision, the justices ruled that the tribe lost governmental rights to the 250,000-acre reservation promised by the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua. As a result, the Oneida Nation cannot "unilaterally" assert sovereign rights -- including freedom from taxation -- on the land, the court said.

"The Oneidas long ago relinquished the reins of government and cannot regain them through open-market purchases from current titleholders," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority.

Despite the negative ruling, tribal officials were certain they had some options. Keller George, a council member, told Indianz.Com in an interview on the day of the decision that the land-into-trust process was being considered.

"I think we're going to be OK and I'm always optimistic," George said in the interview.

The next day, a top Bureau of Indian Affairs official who handles land-into-trust applications indicated the agency was open to the tribe. George Skibine, the acting deputy assistant secretary for policy and economic development, called the court's decision was "quite depressing" but noted language that cited regulations for taking land into trust by considering the impact on the state, local communities and other tribes.

"It was sort of a ray of hope for me," Skibine said at a session of the Western Governors' Association summit on Indian gaming in Denver, Colorado, on March 30.

The Oneida Nation's reservation was stolen through a series of illegal transactions. In 1985, the Supreme Court ruled that the state of New York and two counties can be held liable for monetary damages -- a holding that was not disturbed with the most recent decision.

The tribe has since reacquired about 17,000 acres through purchases on the open market. But the tribe has not paid property taxes or submitted to local laws, believing the land was considered part of its sovereign territory.

"We've had decisions by the bureau saying, 'Yes, it is Indian Country,'" George said of these parcels.

In the wake of the Supreme Court's ruling, officials in upstate New York have said they will send tax bills to the Oneida Nation. The city of Sherrill claims the tribe owes up to $8,000 a year in unpaid property taxes. The two counties that received the stolen land claim the tribe could owe as much as $1.7 million.

The tribe has offset the taxes by issuing grants to local schools. The awards under the "Silver Covenant" program have totaled $1 million or more every year. Since 1996, the tribe has distributed more than $8 million.

The land-into-trust process takes into account the impact of taking land off the tax rolls. Many counties and local governments fight tribes for this reason, with litigation lasting more than a decade in places like South Dakota and Wisconsin.

Emery said yesterday the process is expected to take six to nine months, a relatively short period of time by current standards. Due to the heightened political scrutiny surrounding trust lands, it could take longer for the BIA to make a decision.

Similarly, the Cayuga Nation of New York is planning to follow the same process. The tribe has acquired lands within its 64,000-acre former reservation and has opened a gas station, convenience store and Class II gaming facility.

But the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma says it will pay property taxes on 227 acres it recently acquired. The tribe is also dropping plans to conduct Class II gaming on the land, citing the Supreme Court's decision.

Despite controversies, the Oneida Nation and the Cayuga Nation stand a good chance of seeing their land-into-trust applications approved. On the other hand, BIA has never allowed a tribe to acquire land in another state, although several applications are pending.

Another route, however, could arise through land claim settlements that Gov. George Pataki (R) has negotiated with a handful of tribes, including the Cayugas, the Seneca-Cayugas and two from Wisconsin. In the past, Congress allowed the Seneca Nation to acquire trust lands as part of a deal with New York.

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)