Court action questions putting Indian land in trust

Oneida and Madison counties and the state continue to challenge the federal government’s decision to put 13,004 acres in trust for the Oneida Indian Nation.

A recent 73-page document questions the Department of Interior’s authority to take the land into trust, which would free the land from property taxes and state and local governmental jurisdiction.

The Nov. 17 filing with the Northern District of New York, U.S. District Court, follows Interior’s decision earlier this year to take the land in Oneida and Madison counties into trust for the tribe. Since then, the state, Madison and Oneida counties, local municipalities and several citizen organizations have all filed challenges appealing the DOI decision. This new submission is another round in the legal contest being played out in federal court.

Much of the argument made by the state and counties in the most recent filing centers on the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 and its applicability to the Oneidas. The act was meant to help redress the loss of millions of acres of tribal land nationwide in the 1800s.

The U.S. Supreme Court has been asked repeatedly to address the constitutionality of the act by a number of states and heard arguments in a Rhode Island land-into-trust case this fall.

The Oneidas see nothing new in this latest filing.

"In the Record of Decision, the Department of Interior already rejected these arguments and they are without merit," said Oneida spokesman Mark Emery.

There are more than 40 federal statutes that permit the secretary of the interior to take Indian tribal land, or land owned by individual Indians, in trust, according to the General Accounting Office.

The federal government holds more than 66 million acres in trust for about 350 tribes, according to U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The nation’s original application, submitted in April 2005, requested that the secretary of interior accept approximately 17,370 acres of nation owned land into trust to support cultural and social preservation and expression, political self-determination, self-sufficiency and economic growth by providing a tribal base and homeland.

Trust land opponents contend that a jurisdictional "checkerboard" of Indian and non-Indian parcels would harm local communities.

It was the U.S. Supreme Court in a 2005 ruling in a tax case involving the Oneidas and the City of Sherrill that suggested the tribe consider placing its reacquired ancestral lands into trust. The court ruled that land bought by the nation was not sovereign and was subject to taxation and governmental controls in the absence of trust land status.

The 13,004 acres contain about 80 percent of the nation’s housing, the majority of its government services, Turning Stone Resort and Casino and its four golf courses, and four of the tribe’s 13 SavOn gas stations and convenience stores. It also includes about 9,700 acres of farmland.

The land amounts to about 1 percent of each county’s total acreage.