Appeals court upholds 1794 Oneida treaty
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TUESDAY, JULY 22, 2003

The Oneida Nation of New York scored a significant victory on Monday with a federal appeals court decision exempting the tribe's ancestral land from state jurisdiction.

By a 2-1 vote, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a federal judge's ruling in the tribe's favor. The majority said the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua setting aside an Oneida Reservation "remains in force" and that Indian-owned properties in the city of Sherrill, even though recently purchased, are considered Indian Country.

"There is no material dispute that the Sherrill Properties were part of the Oneidas' aboriginal land and the tribe's reservation as recognized by the Treaty of Canandaigua," wrote Judge B.D. Parker in the 51-page decision.

The decision exempts the Oneida-owned land in Sherrill from all forms of state jurisdiction, including taxation. City officials have been trying to evict the tribe and tribal members for failing to pay property and sales tax.

But one of the judges on the panel questioned whether the Oneidas of New York remain federally-recognized. In an admittedly unusual eight-page dissent, Judge Ellsworth A. Van Graafeiland cited a host of reports, court decisions and laws that purport to cast doubt on the tribe's status.

"The record presents significant, unresolved questions of fact as to whether the Oneida Indian Nation of New York has been in existence continuously over the last century and a half," he wrote.

Van Graafeiland's dissent highlighted Sherrill's arguments in the case. The city hoped to show that the tribe no longer existed and had no claim to its ancestral territory.

"Sherrill's argument assumes that a tribe's land loses its reservation status in the event of a temporary lapse of tribal organization or identity," the court responded. "We find, however, no requirement in the law that a federally recognized tribe demonstrate its continuous existence in order to assert a claim to its reservation land."

The city, joined by two counties who are defendants in the tribe's 250,000-acre land claim and the state of New York, also tried to show that the original Oneida Reservation was "disestablished," or somehow reduced. The majority rejected this assertion as well, saying Congress and subsequent treaties have not diminished the tribe's territory.

"This reservation has never been disestablished, and accordingly, the 'trust relationship' between the federal government and the Oneidas has never been terminated," Parker wrote.

Yesterday's ruling, Oneida Indian Nation v. City of Sherrill, is another in a long line of decisions affecting Oneida lands in upstate New York. For more than 25 years, three different Oneida tribes have been battling in court over more than 250,000 acres that were transferred out of Indian ownership.

In February 2002, Ray Halbritter, a representative of the New York Oneidas, and N.Y. Gov. George Pataki (R) announced a tentative settlement to the claim. The tribe agreed to accept $500 million and a 35,000-acre reservation, along with other tax-related concessions.

The deal was slammed by the Oneidas of Wisconsin and Canada, who were not consulted. The Wisconsin Oneidas have filed a new round of land claims, which were dismissed by a federal judge and are now on appeal to the 2nd Circuit.

Meanwhile, a host of tribes have sought to re-establish their rights in New York. The Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma recently purchased 227 acres within ancestral territory, claiming it as Indian Country under similar arguments made by the Oneidas. The Stockbridge Munsee Mohican Band of Wisconsin has also reasserted claims to its homeland.

Although the claims are still being reviewed by federal officials, they have drawn the attention of some lawmakers. In a report accompanying the Department of Interior's 2004 appropriations bill, the House Appropriations Committee raised alarm about the movement.

"The committee is concerned about the growing number of tribes with an existing reservation in one state that are attempting to claim reservation rights that would allow them to engage in gam-ing operations in states where they have no reservation or trust land status," House Report 108-195 stated.

The 2nd Circuit vacated part of U.S. District Judge David N. Hurd's original June 2001 decision with regard to certain properties in the Madison County. The judges, including Van Graafeiland, said Hurd made a procedural error in saying those properties are Indian Country.

Get the Decision:
Majority Opinion | Van Graafeiland Dissent

Lower Court Decision:
Oneida Nation v. Sherrill et al (June 4, 2001)

Relevant Links:
Oneida Nation -

Related Stories:
Oneida Nation awaits ruling on tax status (04/29)
Taxes of Oneida land questioned (05/15)
Judge: Oneida land is Indian Country (6/7)
Oneida Nation disputes tax lawsuit (2/1)