Oneidas' land claims stir resentment in N.Y.

20,000 landowners may be included in long lawsuit over reservation


VERONA, N.Y. - Five years ago, people in this quiet, rural community gazed with envy and amazement at the instant success of the Oneida Indian Nation's new Turning Stone Casino, an economic juggernaut that created thousands of jobs and lured millions of visitors to this desolate area halfway between Syracuse and Utica.

A few grumbled that it was unfair that the Oneidas did not have to pay taxes on their new wealth. A few others complained that the casino was crowding out small businesses. Yet on balance, most tolerated the incongruously mammoth Oz-like resort here, perhaps rationalizing that the Oneida Indians deserved a leg up after suffering years of poverty and discrimination.

Dispute gets personal

But that was before it got personal.

In December, the Oneidas and the Justice Department announced that they wanted to include 20,000 landowners as defendants in a long-stewing lawsuit to reclaim 270,000 acres from New York state. And almost immediately, the peaceful coexistence was shattered, as landowners flocked to meetings, hinted at violence and snubbed Oneida businesses.

``You'll never catch me buying their gas or going to their casino again,'' said Rosemary Canaguier, 60, who was combing the golden curls of a longtime customer, Bette Button, at the hair salon Canaguier runs in her house in Canastota. ``There's a terrible, terrible dislike now. I don't think you'll ever see the people here ever trusting them again.''

There is more, however, to this slide from empathy to enmity than just the fear of losing land that is roughly equivalent to the areas of New York City, Washington and Boston combined.

For many, the land-claim dispute has brought to the surface a latent sense of frustration and jealousy over the phenomenal success of the Oneida Indian Nation, which, like all federally recognized Indian tribes, does not pay taxes. Just like that, it seems, the Oneidas have rocketed from poverty to affluence, from being the have-nots to the haves, while everyone else in a working-class area stocked with grind-it-out dairy farmers has seen income stagnate.

So for many non-Oneidas, watching the Oneidas ask for the most prized of possessions around here land is tantamount to watching the rich squeeze the not-so-rich. And the federal government's decision to side with the Oneidas, many people say, only compounds their outrage.

'Nothing more than greed'

``It smacks of nothing more than greed, and people feel betrayed because we've given them every advantage that every private businessman would die for,'' said David Wood, an Oneida County legislator. ``Not only do we feel threatened, we're offended that our neighbors would do this.''

That cocktail of anger and vulnerability figures to intensify in the coming months, residents say. On March 29, Judge Neal McCurn of U.S. District Court in Syracuse is expected to hear arguments on whether to include the landowners in the federal lawsuit. McCurn is also expected to decide soon whether to appoint an arbitrator to do what the Oneidas and New York state officials have failed to do for more than 13 years: hammer out a compromise.

Lawsuit filed in 1970

In 1970, the Oneidas filed a lawsuit in federal court saying that New York state and local governments had illegally acquired Oneida lands in the 1700s and 1800s through illegal and coercive treaties. Fifteen years later, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Oneidas' argument.

At that point, the state began to negotiate with the Oneidas. But for years, nothing happened nothing, that is, until December, when the Oneidas and the Justice Department, seeking to pressure the state into a settlement, moved to name the 20,000 landowners as defendants.

``We have to use a tool of discomfort, and that we regret,'' said Ray Halbritter, nation representative and chief executive of the Oneida Indian Nation.

Halbritter said that the Oneidas did not want to evict anyone. Instead, he said that he would push for a creative solution that would benefit all parties.

The Justice Department has echoed that position. So has the state. In a statement last month, Gov. George Pataki said, ``We are going to make sure no one loses their homes, no one loses their property.''

So far, though, such assurances have only bred more cynicism and mistrust in the land-claim area of northern Madison and western Oneida counties.

At a forum in Verona, Michael Gaiser, owner of a bed-and-breakfast in Vernon whose business has been severely clipped by the Oneidas' casino hotel, captured the bunkerlike mentality.

``The Justice Department is the one standing there telling us they're going to sue us, and you're telling us that we're not going to be giving up our land,'' said an exasperated Gaiser, his voice billowing with a timbre reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart. ``Well, I don't know if I believe you!''

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