Former Attorney for Upstate Citizens for Equality
In 1999, I was retained to represent a landowner group victimized by the Oneida Indian Land Claim. At the time, the Oneida Indian Nation of New York had filed a class action lawsuit in federal court seeking an “ejectment” (mass eviction) of 20,000 landowners in Oneida and Madison counties.
In a series of claims the Oneidas sought 6 million acres between the Canadian border and Pennsylvania (aboriginal tribal lands). The largest one was based on a position that the treaty which approved the transfer of this giant tract to the state (and therefore all subsequent landowners in its chain of titles) was improperly authorized by the state and not the federal government. But the transaction occurred when our Articles of Confederation existed. Therefore, the Supreme Court ruled this treaty valid and threw out the vast claim.
Another by the same Oneida Nation took issue with a 250,000 acre tract which was also transacted by the state and not the federal government. On this claim, featuring multiple conveyances between 1795 and mid-19th century, the new Constitution was in effect. That document clarified that the federal government had exclusive authority over land transactions with Native American tribes (nations).
In addition, the Oneidas relied on the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua which effectively declared such exclusive authority, but New York proceeded anyway to partition the remaining 250,000-acre tract. It was not until 1985, by a 5-4 decision that the Supreme Court ruled that the New York land conveyances were null and void due to the lack of federal involvement. Therefore, this particular tract remained tribal lands of the Oneidas.
By this time, the original tribe had split with additional reservations in Canada and Wisconsin. Only a small number (about 1,000) remained in the original tract on a 32-acre trailer park in Madison County (between Utica and Syracuse). More troubling, because the Court never directed a remedy for the Constitution and treaty violations, the answer was left open for further resolution.
Of course, the removal of 20,000 landowners (roughly 60,000 residents) would be daunting, if not revolutionary. Outsiders were quick to blame these innocent landowners who had nothing to do with any ” historical injustices.” And when the victims invited these critics to offer their own land for Native American reparations, they simply dropped their stones and walked away. After all, it was the state and not these victims who acted unlawfully with the federal government at the time too weak or political to intervene in a timely manner.
After years of negotiation failures, the Oneida Nation filed its class action lawsuit against the landowners using the millions obtained from their casino built in 1993. However, the state-Oneida compact which authorized this (Turning Stone) casino had its own legal flaws, most notably the lack of approval by the New York Legislature.
Like the son who followed him during our pandemic, Governor Mario Cuomo declared himself supreme over such matters and signed the compact into law. No one challenged this until I brought an intervenor action on behalf of the landowners in the federal court land claim. It was based principally on grounds that this intergovernmental compact violated a separation of powers under the state constitution.
This was essentially our way of saying that if these ancient treaties could invalidate the state land conveyances (upon which countless deeds were based), the same is true about the claimants’ lucrative casino compact (and all the monies unlawfully taken from gamblers). Action on the intervenor (countersuit) motion was quickly put on hold by the presiding federal judge pending the outcome of high-level negotiations which might resolve all issues.
One proposed outcome was a $500 million payment, ratification of the compact and a limited land purchase. But we quickly exposed that scheme with news conferences, protests and growing public meetings that included other Indian Nation land claims by the Senecas on Grand Island (between Buffalo and Niagara Falls) and Cayuga Nation (Finger Lakes region). At one point, an estimated 2,000 angry landowners turned out to hear my unconventional strategies that included the first-ever local convoy of aggrieved landowners.
Rather than wait indefinitely for a complex land claim resolution (which never materialized), I withdrew our federal counterclaim and intervenor motion, re-filing instead in New York Supreme Court. The Oneida factions with their high-profile law firms followed with a motion for an injunction against my state lawsuit in the federal litigation. The presiding judge denied their motion, thereby allowing our state case (exclusively against the casino compact) to proceed.
But to the delight of our adversaries, which included some of our own elected officials, a state judge put our case on hold until the outcome of the federal negotiations. We had no clout politically as the subject land claims existed in rural areas. Only the Onondaga claim remained dormant no doubt because it encompassed the Destiny Mall, most of the city of Syracuse and, of course, Syracuse University.
We therefore resorted to public protests which included the convoy (motorcade) that surrounded the casino property in January, 1999 (over 1,000 vehicles). A more expansive convoy followed months later on the New York Thruway beginning at Buffalo and ending on the Capitol steps in Albany, New York (over 300 miles). One of the flatbeds featured a giant fake canon daring the Oneida Nation CEO to come take our land.
Needless to say, we suffered all the same disparagements as the organizers of the Freedom Convoy are today. However, the racist label was somewhat diluted by my long-time status as a civil rights attorney. Several years later, the casino compact was finally ruled invalid by a state Supreme Court judge who replaced the one originally assigned. Shortly after that, the Supreme Court revisited its 1985 ruling and threw out the land claim as stale and unenforceable. Taxpayers were able to keep the $500 million earmarked at one time to settle the treaty violations.
This outcome was unimaginable in 1999. My role in all this earned an interview on CBS 60 Minutes. However, like my crusade against corrupt family courts today, I paid a high price. They never forgot me after that, a successful crusade against a billion-dollar casino operation (as the Las Vegas Sun described it in 2004). So, hat’s off to the Freedom Convoy. As Coach Jim Valvano might say, don’t ever give up. And as I am saying today, never allow your governments, federal, state or Canadian, to insult the people.