Seneca Indian Law Suit Information Page A U.S.Justice Department Release and a Series of Publications
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE ENR FRIDAY, MARCH 20, 1998 (202) 514-2008 JUSTICE DEPARTMENT MOVES TO RESOLVE INDIAN LAND DISPUTE INVOLVING GRAND ISLAND, NEW YORK WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Justice Department today intervened in an existing federal lawsuit brought by the Seneca Nation and the Tonawanda Band of Senecas over Indian land, including Grand Island, in Allegheny County, New York. The lawsuit alleges that in the nineteenth century, New York State illegally obtained land that belongs to the Seneca Nation. "The Seneca Nation has an historical and federally protected interest in this land," said Lois Schiffer, Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Justice Department's Environment Division. "New York State violated federal law when it purchased the land without Congressional approval in the early nineteenth century. It is time to right this wrong." According to the Department's papers filed today in U.S. District Court in Buffalo, New York State tried to buy land from the Senecas in 1815, without the consent of the United States Congress. A 1790 federal statute prohibits the purchase of land from Indian tribes without Congressional consent. The federal government's intervention will prevent the state from successfully arguing that it should be dismissed from the cases due to a June 1997 U.S. Supreme Court ruling which held that Indian tribes may not bring land claims against state officials. However, this ruling does not apply to the federal government, which may sue states in federal court. Federal intervention will ensure that the court can hear the merits of the case, and that the state, which improperly purchased the land, remains accountable for its action. The Senecas' suit, originally filed in 1993 in U.S. District Court in Buffalo, involves a claim for approximately 18 Niagara River islands totaling approximately 18,000 acres, of which Grand Island is by far the largest. The United States is not joining in another claim in the Senecas' suit, in which the Seneca Nation asserts that a 300 acre easement for Interstate 90 across the Cattaraugus Reservation near Buffalo is not valid because it was not approved by Congress. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said, "Although we are intervening and are willing to litigate the case, we are also willing to engage in serious settlement discussions with the state and the Senecas." Similar Indian land claims in other states have been resolved through negotiation. In those claims, the tribes, the state, and the federal government have reached agreements that have compensated tribes and eliminated questions about the land title of present-day owners. In some of these settlements, tribes bought land from willing sellers to create or expand a reservation. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that no time limitation applies to this type of Indian land claim. This is a U.S. Justice Department Release
These articles are publications regarding the Seneca Law Suit:
Citing a 200-year-old treaty and the promise of George Washington, the Seneca Nation of Indians says it is the rightful owner of Grand Island [an island in the Niagara River, and town in Erie Co., NY]. The Senecas will begin legal action today to reclaim all 18,660 acres of the island and evict its more than 6,000 property owners. They also will seek the return of about 300 acres of land on the Cattaraugus Reservation now being used by the New York State Thruway.
"Feds Rule in favor of Senecas"
Case to proceed to trial
By Deanne Bartha
(Article in Island Dispatch August 14, 1998 Vol. 58,No. 19)
The case between the Seneca Nation of Indians vs. defendants regarding the Town of Grand Island came to a head Thursday morning after the federal government officially ruled to recommend dismissal of the defendants' filed motions. Announced by Carol E. Heckman, United States Magistrate Judge at the Federal courthouse in downtown Buffalo, the move prompted immediate response from local government officials who continue to speak out in defense of Grand Island property owners.
Supervisor Peter McMahon said the ruling was "the expected result of the federal government's intervention in the Seneca Nation land claim. Fundamentally, the ruling means the case can go to trial."
"This ruling 'does not change the facts in this case," McMahon said. "It does mean that the uncertainty felt by our property owners and the negative economic impact, which are caused by this land claim will continue for another two or three years."
McMahon met with Judge Heckman following the release of her ruling. She told him that "if the US Government had not been there, the case would probably have been dismissed."
"It is unfortunate that the federal government has chosen to ignore the rights of our residents," McMahon said. "It is important to remember that in the entire history of Indian land claims no property owner has ever involuntarily lost property."
McMahon has instructed the Town Attorney to research the law governing Indian land claims and look for legal options which might "result in either the dismissal of Island property owners as defendants and/or which would limit any award from the lawsuit to monetary damages." By doing so, McMahon believes that uncertainty provoked by the case would end.
Assembly member Sam Hloyt was with McMahon for the press conference and expressed disappointment in the ruling. He criticized Attorney General Janet Reno for her actions this year that allowed the federal government to intervene on behalf of the Seneca Nation of Indians. "Today's decision by Magistrate Heckman is deeply disappointing," Hoyt said. "However, while this decision legally allows the United - States Government to intervene against New York State and Grand Island, it still does not justify that intervention. As I said last spring, the Attorney General's office has no legal obligation to get involved in this matter."
Hoyt pointed out that although the intervention may be legal, it isn't necessarily "right."
"Today's ruling will further prolong the life of a legal case that many have called baseless," Hoyt insisted. "For or five years, Grand Island residents have had to live with this claim. Today, their confusion and their fears will grow unnecessarily and Janet Reno is to blame." Hoyt emphasized that although this may be a setback for Islanders, it is not the end just one battle in the "war."
Erie County Legislator Charles M. Swanick downplayed the decision. The recommendation, he noted, was "limited to procedural issues and does not make a determination as to the validity of the Seneca Nation's claim." He believes it is one step toward "resolving the issue in the courts the courts the next several months."
"The Magistrate simply decided that the United States government has the right to intervene on the Seneca Nation's behalf; it does not make any factual determination as to their right to claim title to the Land," Swanick said. "Without the United States government as a party to thc proceedings, it would appear that New York State and the other parties would have been immune from a suit such as this on Constitutional grounds."
Swanick noted that this is only a recommendation from the Federal Magistrate that must be accepted by the federal court prior to making a decision as to the Senecas' lawsuit. Even if the court does accept the Magistrate's ruling he remains confident that the Senecas will not be successful. "Today's recommendation is only one step in a long process; I still believe that the Senecas' lawsuit will be unsuccessful," Swanick said. "I look forward to working with all of the named defendants that are fighting the Senecas' lawsuit to ensure that the residents and taxpayers of the Town of Grand Island have their land rights protected." Defendants named in the suit are:
State of New York, George E. Pataki, Bernadette Castro, Dr. Ronald W. Coan, John Cahill, Joseph Boardman, John R. Platt, The New York State Thruway Authority, Erie County, Moore Business Forms Corp., Inducom, Inc., Rad-0-Mat Holdings U.S. Inc., Ilona H. Lang, Robert W. Weaver, and Francis B. Pritchard:
A pretrial conference is set for 3 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 18 to schedule further proceedings.
SENECA NATION LAND CLAIM: GRAND ISLAND
A DAYBREAK REPORT
by John Mohawk
This is a land claim filed by the Seneca Nation in August of 1993. The claim is for approximately 18,600 acres involving islands in the Niagara River. The largest of these islands is Grand Island which is over 17,000 acres. Grand Island is the heart of the claim.
The Seneca argument is essentially that the land belonged to the Seneca Nation, which was part of the Iroquois Confederacy and they never sold it or gave it away to either the French or the British. The State of New York acquired the land in 1815 from the Seneca Nation in an agreement which was made in violation of federal law. The federal law in 1815 required that all transactions involving land between Indians and anyone else, including state governments, must be approved and authorized by Congress.
No one in this case contests the Seneca argument that the transactions were not approved. There is no evidence that Congress approved this transaction. The transaction therefore violates the Trade and Intercourse Act which provides that when land is acquired without the approval of Congress, any of the titles that were transferred are void.
The defendants are the State of New York, Erie County and all of the private landowners (numbering more than 2,000, including a number of corporate defendants,) in the claim area. The case is being handled in the Federal Court for the Western District of New York, Judge Richard Arcara presiding. Judge Arcara has, with the consent of the parties, handed over some of the issues to a federal magistrate to be resolved.
The case is being handled as a class action lawsuit. What that means is that the entire group of defendants is represented by a number of representatives. The State of New York, Erie County, and Moore Business Forms have been designated by the courts as representatives of the class of defendants. The lawyer for Moore Business Forms is Allan van Gestel, a prominent attorney who has handled a number of Indian land claims for the defendants.
The class action character of the lawsuit will make the process more efficient. What it means is that the rulings in the case will legally bind all of the members of the class. In other words, they are all effectively parties to the action and whatever happens in this case will effect their interests. The first thing that was done in the case was to identify the class of defendants and to notify them of the pending action. This was all done in order to give them an opportunity to find their own attorneys.
The Tonawanda Band of Senecas, represented by the Indian Law Resource Center, intervened in the case in November 1993, three months after the suit was filed. That intervention was not opposed by any of the parties.
The remedies sought for trespass damages have no dollar figure attached. What is sought is the ejectment of the defendants and return of possession of the land to the Seneca. The question of how the two entities representing the Seneca Nation -- the Seneca Nation of Indians comprising the Cattaraugus and Allegheny Indian Reservations, and the Tonawanda Band of Seneca on the Tonawanda Indian Reservation -- have not been addressed at this stage and will be resolved later.
The attorneys for the defendants raised eleven defenses, which would have dismissed the case. Attorneys for the Seneca argued that these motions be stricken, that they had already been ruled on, and the Magistrate Judge recommended that this be done. The most important defense of the eleven involved an argument that enough time had passed that the matter of ownership of the islands had been settled and could not be revived. The Magistrate Judge recommended that this defense could not be used in this case, that the Seneca did not need to prove that they were prompt in asserting their claim, and that the case would continue on. The issue is now before the federal judge who will make the final decision.
Right now, both sides are in the discovery phase. Both sides are exchanging information. A status conference is scheduled for August. Discovery phase should end on December 29, 1995. Any motions to dismiss should be in by February 21. That phase of the case could be argued in May or June 1996. A decision might be reached in autumn, 1996 about whether the case has enough merit to go to trial. Unless the Court decides in the meantime to issue a summary judgment that the Seneca Nation still owns the land, we can expect it to take up to two years to go to trial.
The Seneca Nation has a strong legal case. No one can predict how the matter will turn out in the long run.
(This article was adapted from an interview with former Indian Law Resource Center attorney Curtis Berkey.)
WILLIAMSVILLE, NY 14231-0315
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