A federal judge has dismissed a decades-old land claim in New York against the Oneida Indian Nation by an Indian tribe whose land base is more than 1,000 miles away.
U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Kahn ruled on July 23, 2013, that the Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians of Wisconsin cannot sue the Oneida Indian Nation or the state of New York because both the Nation and state have sovereign immunity.
The Stockbridge-Munsee filed the original land claim lawsuit against the Oneida Nation in 1986 with an amended complaint in 2005 asserting the right to roughly 36 square miles of central New York state under the 1790 Indian Trade and Nonintercourse Act and the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua and “related damages,” according to court documents. The 36 square miles, or 23,000 acres, are within the Oneida Nation’s acknowledged 250,000 acre historic reservation. Motions to dismiss the lawsuit were filed by the Oneida Nation, the state of New York, and two counties, five towns and one village.
Kahn said the state and the Oneidas cannot be sued because of their sovereignty, quoting the 11th Amendment, which provides that the “Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law of equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State, ‘including Native American tribes.’”
Kahn also said that the “Sherrill laches” or “Sherrill Defense” precluded the Stockbridge-Munsee, meaning that the Stockbridge-Munsee had waited too long to bring the claim. Ironically, the laches argument was used by the U.S. Supreme Court in the City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation in a 2005 ruling which acknowledged that the Oneida Nation had retained its historic 250,000-plus acre reservation, but denied its return because the Nation had waited too long to claim it and its return would be “disruptive” to those who currently occupy the land. The Nation’s claim to the land was filed in 1970 and finally resolved in a historic and comprehensive agreement with the state that awaits final approval by the federal government and state legislature.
The Stockbridge-Munsee Community owns and operates the successful North Star Mohican Resort Casino in Bowler, Wisconsin, where its 22,000-plus-acre reservation is located, but it hoped to open another casino in New York state. In November 2010 it came to light that former New York Gov. David Paterson had forged an agreement in secret that would have allowed the Wisconsin tribe to build a $700 million casino on 330 acres of land in Sullivan County in exchange for dropping its land claim to the 23,000 acres in Madison County. The deal died natural death when the Interior Department rejected the tribal-state gaming compact in early 2001.
In the Stockbridge-Munsee August 1 newsletter, Vice President Wallace A. Miller expressed disappointment at the district court ruling. "The Stockbridge-Munsee Community has been working for more than a century to resolve the wrongful taking of our New York homelands," Miller said.
But the Oneida Nation has said the Stockbridge-Munsee has no legitimate claim to the land. In the 18th century Oneida offered refuge and hospitality to various tribes such as the Stockbridge-Munsee and the Brothertown Indian Nation, but that does not give the Stockbridge-Munsee a legitimate claim to the land, the Nation has said.
The Community newsletter reported that in 1971, the U.S. Indian Claims Commission determined that the Stockbridge-Munsee Community had a valid property interest in New York under the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua, but the commission, which was established in 1946 to evaluate tribal land claims, was abolished in 1978.
Miller said the Stockbridge-Munsee Community will “press on with its land claim” despite the federal court dismissal. The district court ruling can be appealed to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York.