Published in Neighbor to Neighbor; Nation to Nation: Readings About the Relationship of the Onondaga Nation with Central New York, USA, November 2001

Settlements Have Been Negotiated in Other Communities

By Andy Mager

To date, efforts to settle Native American land claims in New York State have failed. The Oneida claim, filed in 1970 and the Cayuga claim, filed in 1980 have both involved significant court proceedings as well as extensive negotiations. Unfortunately, neither has been settled. Although many factors are involved, New York State’s lack of commitment to a fair resolution, fear and resistance of property owners in the affected areas and multiple parties on the Native American side have all contributed. However, outside of New York State there are examples of claims which have been settled through negotiations. While the process was never easy, it often occurred without the degree of animosity which has deeply divided communities to the east and west of Syracuse.

All of the claims in New York State, including the Onondaga claim which has not yet been filed, are based on the Indian Intercourse Act of 1790 which requires federal approval for the sale or transfer of any Indian land. This article focuses only on claims based on this same legal argument. According to the U.S. Government’s General Accounting Office at least 21 such lawsuits have been initiated by 22 Indian nations in seven eastern states and Louisiana.

Between 1978 and 1994 land claims were settled in Rhode Island, Maine, Florida, Connecticut, Massachusetts, South Carolina and Virginia. The federal legislation formalizing the six settled claims all include provisions which:

• provided the Native American nations with land, and/or funds set aside for purchasing land, and money;

• cleared the current landowners’ titles by ratifying past land transfers and extinguishing the Native Americans’ title to the claimed land;

• limited the time in which the legislated agreements could be challenged.

In none of these cases have any landowners been evicted from their land or forced to sell.

Below are highlights from some of the cases which have been settled.

Narragansetts-Rhode Island

The Narragansetts filed claim for 3,900 acres in Rhode Island in 1975. Negotiations between the Narragansetts, the state of Rhode Island and the town of Charlestown (where the lands were located) were carried out in consultation with the Carter administration. They led to a settlement which was affirmed by Congress on September 30, 1978 and later approved by the Rhode Island legislature. The settlement included approximately 1800 acres of land, half donated by the state and half to be purchased from specified landholders. The federal government contributed $3.5 million toward the purchase of land. The Narragansetts were exempted from federal, state and local taxes under the agreement.

Passmaquoddy, Penobscot and Houlton Maliseet-Maine

The claim involved 12.5 million acres, about three-fifths of the state, by far the largest to date. The Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act (1980) contained provisions from a previously negotiated settlement. It included $81.5 million from the federal government, two-thirds of which was earmarked for the purchase of up to 300,000 acres of land from willing sellers (paper and lumber corporations).

Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan-Connecticut

Claims by the Mashantucket Pequot (for 800 acres filed in 1976) and the Mohegans (for 2500 acres filed in 1977) were settled in 1983 and 1994 respectively. The Pequot received $900,000 from which they were eligible to purchase over 800 acres from private owners. Their reservation now totals1,250 acres. The Mohegan were granted the opportunity to purchase about 700 acres of land with the nation’s own funds and create a reservation. On September 30, 1995, 240 acres of the northernmost traditional Mohegan reservation lands were reacquired. The settlement specifically addressed concerns regarding tax losses for the surrounding area, jurisdictional questions and potential land use conflicts.

Gay Head Wampanoag-Massachusetts

The Wampanoags filed suit for 5000 acres of land in 1974. Following a 1976 decision by the Town of Gay Head, federal legislation approved funding for the purchase of 177 acres. Under the settlement, the Wampanoag Tribal Council of Gay Head, Inc. has limited jurisdiction over the reservation and is exempt from state and local taxes.

Catawba-South Carolina

In 1980 the Catawba Nation filed suit to reclaim 140,000 acres of land in South Carolina. Negotiations led to a settlement involving $50 million and 3600 acres of land, of which 630 were transferred by the U.S. and the rest was purchased from willing sellers using part of the settlement funds. The tax situation under the agreement is complex.

What Does it Mean for Us?

There are differences among the settlements, as their are among the individual claims. These agreements were reached between 1978 and 1994, during the tenure of four different administrations in Washington. The reactions of landowners, government officials, businesses and other players varied in each case. At this writing, it is too early to know whether federal policies regarding land claims will change and if so, what affect that will have on the Onondaga land claim.

It is clear is that when communities choose to negotiate in good faith, recognizing that historic wrongs must be redressed, solutions can be found. It is the hope of Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation that this is the path which will chosen by our community. In doing so, we can take responsibility for the crimes committed by our forebearers and set an example of conscientious action for our children and future generations.