Senecas suffer setback in claim on state lands

Court rejects issue of illegal possession

News Staff Reporter
A three-judge federal appeals court Thursday unanimously affirmed decisions by U.S. District Judge Richard Arcara denying claims by the Seneca Nation of Indians to Grand Island and other islands in the Niagara River and a stretch of the Thruway property in southern Erie County.

The court upheld Arcara's June 2002 decision in the highly publicized claim of the Senecas to more than 40 islands, including Grand Island, by ruling that the state obtained rightful ownership of those lands at the time of the American Revolution.

It further rejected the Senecas' claim that the state illegally obtained possession of the strip of land where the Thruway runs through the towns of Brant and Irving in southern Erie and northern Chautauqua counties. The Senecas argued that a 1954 agreement that afforded the state "a permanent easement" was invalid because it was never approved by the federal government as is required under a treaty dating back to George Washington.

"Basically, the Court of Appeals was impressed by Judge Arcara's decision. That went a long way toward influencing the Court of Appeals," said Peter B. Sullivan, assistant state attorney general.

Barry Snyder, who heads the Senecas' Tribal Council, said he had not seen the decision itself and could not comment on its content but expects a petition to be filed asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.

"We anticipated we'd appeal it all the way up," Snyder said. "We thought we'd need to get it out of Western New York and into another court more advantageous to the Senecas."

The Senecas must first petition the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. The court can either grant or deny the request. If granted, the case will be argued again before the nation's highest court.

Snyder defended the Senecas' motives for their claims.

"We're not after the people of Grand Island. . . . Our fight has never been with the people of Grand Island; we wanted to go after the State of New York, that was our intent," he said.

"Anytime a land deal was done, (the federal government) was supposed to look at it, but the federal government never gave their blessings to this," he said.

Sullivan said, however, the appellate court soundly based its decision on scores of historical documents that support the cession of Indian ownership rights in 1764 in a treaty with Great Britain.

The legality of an agreement negotiated between the state and the Senecas for the sale of the river islands in 1815 for $1,000 and a $500 perpetual annual payment was effectively moot because the state already owned the land, hesaid. Senecas claim that agreement with the state was illegal.