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Seneca claim to Island rebuffed

High Court refusal ends 13-year fight

News Staff Reporters
That sound coming from Grand Island was a sigh of relief.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to reinstate the Seneca Nation of Indians' claim over the properties of 18,000 residents, ending a 13-year fight that had many residents fearing that they would be forced from their homes.

"Is it finally over?" said Liz AuClair-Smith, who has lived on Love Road for 36 years. "I'm delighted. It's been quite a burden to have that hanging over our heads - whether to sell or to stay. You wouldn't get your price."

"This lawsuit was mischief-making that somebody took seriously and that got entirely out of hand," said Douglas M. Smith, who has lived on Hennepin Road since 1967. "I agree that we have probably given the Indians a bad deal from the beginning. But to try to find a loophole from 250 years ago?"

The Senecas sued in 1993 to "recover" Grand Island and about 40 other islands in the Niagara River, claiming they had been illegally taken in an 1815 treaty with New York State.

U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara ruled in 2002 that the Senecas had never lived on the islands and, if they had any right to them, had negotiated them away before 1815. His ruling was upheld by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in September.

Town Supervisor Peter McMahon applauded Monday's refusal by the Supreme Court to hear the Senecas' last appeal.

"There's no higher court," he said, "so it's over."

McMahon said he found it interesting that the U.S. Justice Department, whose intervention on the Senecas' behalf enabled them to sue in the first place, filed a last-minute brief contending that the appeal had no merit.

But Joseph F. Crangle, who represented the Seneca Nation when the case was filed, said: "I'm disappointed. There is no question that the treaty [of 1815] included islands in the Niagara River, and I think Grand Island is in the Niagara River. This is a good example of how people can rewrite history."

John Blanton, a senior from Grand Island High School, was told the news at Town Hall.

"I was very young when the suit started," he said. "I have very mixed feelings. Being a resident of Grand Island, I have to say they really don't own it. My grandparents were somewhat afraid they were going to lose their house. But I can see the Indians were here [in Western New York] first."

Jim Tomkins, president of the Quality Quest Coalition in Grand Island, an environmental group, said he had ambivalent feelings about the case.

"Historically, the Indians have gotten the short end of the stick for a very long time," said Tomkins, who has lived on West River Road for 44 years. "But from a selfish point of view, if I were trying to sell my property I'd have had a lot different attitude."

When the Senecas filed their land claim in 1993, they said they intended to reclaim all 18,660 acres of Grand Island and evict more than 6,000 homeowners. Later, in some of their public remarks about the case, Seneca leaders softened their stance, saying they had no intention of forcing residents out of their homes.

During settlement talks in 2000, Seneca officials indicated they hoped to receive more than $176 million from the state and federal governments to drop the Grand Island lawsuit.