Oneida Indian nation suing for return of land

U.S. Justice Department backs the land claim

'There's a lot of tension'

1794 treaty gives tribe legal right to land

June 13, 1999|By Fred Kaplan | Fred Kaplan,Boston Globe

VERONA, N.Y. -- The turning point in Ray Halbritter's life -- and possibly the life of central New York State -- came in 1975, when a fire engulfed the bingo hall on the tiny Indian Reservation where he lived. The city's fire department refused to answer a call for help. His uncle and aunt died in the blaze.

"It was a real awakening experience," Halbritter, who was 25 at the time, recalled. "I realized we had to find a way to take care of ourselves."

He decided to go to college, then to Harvard Law School. Now, at age 48, Halbritter is CEO of the Oneida Indian Nation, which owns not merely a bingo hall but the Turning Stone Casino Resort, a multimillion-dollar enterprise that has transformed the once-impoverished tribe into a political and economic powerhouse.

Halbritter has also mounted the largest Indian land claim in the United States -- one that could affect similar claims in New York and all along the East Coast.

He is demanding the return of all the land taken from his tribe over the past 200 years -- a total of 250,000 acres. And he is suing not just Oneida and Madison Counties but also the 20,000 private landowners who currently hold title to the territory.

This is no idle challenge: The Justice Department is backing the land claim, and has publicly declared that one way to settle the dispute might be to evict the present occupants, who number about 80,000. The Oneida Indians in the area, by contrast, number fewer than 1,000.

The counties, in angry legal counterclaims, have laid siege to the entire notion of tribal sovereignty -- at least to the degree it exempts tribal holdings from local laws, regulations and taxes.

"There's a lot of tension here, and the tension is growing dramatically," said Ralph Eannes, the Oneida County executive, sitting in his 10th floor office, overlooking the vast green meadows of the Mohawk Valley.

"I've heard people talk about guns," Eannes went on. "There's been a lot of protest rallies against the Indians -- so far peaceful, but some have threatened not to stay peaceful."

Every weekend, a few hundred members of a group called the Upstate Citizens for Equality picket the casino and the Indians other enterprises -- five gas stations, a deluxe RV park, an inn, and a textile printing shop.

One homeowner has hung a poster on his porch, a cartoon of a man holding a rifle and saying, Ray Halbritter, come collect your rent!

Bernie Conklin, co-founder of Upstate Citizens, whose family ties to the area go back three generations, said he does not condone violence, but does call for a boycott of the Indian businesses. He tells his fellow townspeople who patronize the Oneida businesses, All you're doing is giving them more money to sue you with.

The Oneida tribe filed its lawsuit against the landowners last December. Since then, Upstate Citizens membership rolls have skyrocketed from 600 to 3,500.

"We welcomed the fact that landowners are named in the suit," Conklin said. "It woke a lot of people up."

No shocker

To Halbritter, though, the suit should not have shocked anybody.

"People who live here all knew we have a land claim on this property," he said. "It says so on the titles and deeds of their homes. Nobody can claim ignorance. What nobody counted on was that, one day, we'd assert our claim."

Halbritter bases the claim on the Treaty of Canandaigua, signed by the US government in 1794, which promised never to disturb the Oneidas right to 250,000 acres of central New York.

Of the six Iroquois tribes in the state, the Oneida were alone in supporting the colonists during the Revolutionary War. They helped fight off the British in a few key battles and, in a famous bit of lore, supplied corn to George Washington's hungry troops at Valley Forge.

The 1794 treaty was the American governments token of gratitude.

Then, between 1795 and 1846, New York State imposed 26 land-treaties on the Oneida that, eventually, reduced the tribes holdings to a mere 32 acres -- barely enough to live on, much less develop or seriously farm.

The Oneida have long claimed that the state treaties violated the Trade and Intercourse Act, passed by the US Congress in 1790 and still in force today, which forbids states from buying Indian lands without the approval of the federal government.

"This is what's at issue in the current controversy," said Tony Wonderley, the tribes official historian. "All the New York land treaties are illegal because they were done without federal consent."

Supreme Court ruling

In 1970, the Oneida sued the State for damages. State judges rejected their claim. But then in 1985, the US Supreme Court ruled the Indians claim had merit.

"That 1985 decision changed the landscape," said Robert Witmer, the lawyer who represents the county. "Nobody ever had to take the land claims seriously till then. Once they did, so much land and money was involved, nobody knew quite how to address it."

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