U.S. joins lawsuit asserting that N.Y. got Indian land illegally

Oneidas' 270,000 acres reduced to 32-acre plot 200 years ago

Approval of Congress lacking

'They basically sided with a foreign nation against us,' one landowner says

January 28, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - The federal government has joined the Oneida Indians in a lawsuit that contends the state and local governments unlawfully acquired 270,000 acres of land in central New York from the Indians nearly 200 years ago, whittling down what had been a sprawling reservation into a 32-acre plot.

Though the Oneidas' land claim has been wending its way through federal courts since 1970, the victim of fruitless settlement negotiations between the Indians and three New York governors, the intervention of the Justice Department has focused the attention of state and local officials on the case.

Widespread anxiety

In particular, lawyers for the Justice Department and the Oneidas have provoked widespread anxiety and anger among private landowners by seeking to expand the suit to name not just the state, but also some 20,000 property owners in central New York as defendants.

The Justice Department and the Oneidas adamantly maintain that they have no interest in evicting people from their homes or forcing them to pay rent to the tribe and say the suit really is intended to pressure the state into reaching a settlement. But such assurances have not stopped people from believing that their homes and farms are in danger, that they will be unable to buy or sell property or that banks will stop making loans.

``This is very emotional issue and no amount of assurances are going to completely allay people's anxieties,'' said state Sen. Raymond Meier, a Republican from Oneida County. ``The only way to do that is to bring this to a rapid and complete conclusion.''

The expansion of the suit to include individual land owners, which would have to be approved by U.S. District Judge Neal McCurn in Syracuse, comes at a time of simmering tensions between the Oneidas and some business owners, who contend the Oneidas' tax-free status is putting them out of business.

The Oneidas, who have become one of the region's largest employers, run a casino and hotel as well as several stores, restaurants and gas stations where customers do not pay sales tax.

``Ten or twelve family-owned businesses are now gone because the Indian businesses have an unfair advantage,'' said Assemblyman David Townsend, a Republican from Oriskany. ``And they flaunt it in people's faces by advertising tax-free goods.''

But the Justice Department's involvement has now made the federal goverment a target of the anger. ``It's amazing that they basically sided with a foreign nation against us,'' said Lisa Jensen, a 31-year-old landowner. ``You hit yourself on the head and you ask where do my tax dollars go? Against me?''

Oneidas' contention

The Oneidas contend that New York state violated the federal Trade and Intercourse Act of 1790, which prohibited states from acquiring land from Indians without federal approval.

The Oneidas argue that between 1795 and 1840, the state and local governments entered into 26 treaties and several purchase agreements with the Oneidas to acquire all but 32 of the 270,000 acres now in dispute.

Almost none of those transactions were approved by Congress, lawyers for the Justice Department and the Oneidas say, making the sales invalid.

In 1985, the Supreme Court upheld that argument in a ``test case'' filed by the Oneidas that named Oneida and Madison counties as defendants and claimed just 900 acres. At that point, the state opened negotiations with the Oneidas and the litigation was put on hold for the next 13 years, until the Oneidas and the Justice Department moved to expand the case last month.

The Justice Department's actions have prompted finger-pointing between the administration of Gov. George Pataki and the Oneidas, with each side blaming the other for stonewalling the talks.

Governor's view

The governor's office contends that negotiations have stalled largely because there are three groups of Oneidas who are parties to the lawsuit - one in New York, one in Wisconsin and one in Ontario, Canada - and that they have often feuded over strategy and goals. But aides to the governor contend that even fractured talks with the Oneidas are preferable to the new legal tack chosen by the Justice Department.

``We think the federal government has turned its back on the people of central New York,'' said Michael McKeon, a spokesman for Pataki. ``We think it would be much more productive if they played a helpful role in negotiations rather than taking sides.''

But Raymond Halbritter, the elected leader of the Oneida Indian Nation of New York, asserted that Pataki had been poorly served by his legal advisers, who did not recognize the Oneidas' frustration with the turtle-paced negotiations.

'We really had no choice'

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