Land into Trust
In 2008, the Bureau of Indian Affairs recommended that 13,004 (13,003.89) acres of land be placed into federal trust for the Oneida Indian Nation.
The decision, rendered in May, came after more than three years of review, public hearings, and meetings. The Nation applied to put the land into trust to ensure its cultural preservation, self-determination, self-sufficiency, and economic independence.
The Oneidas are already successful – why did they apply for Land into Trust?
“I think it will benefit the entire region. This region lacks industry and can’t attract new businesses. It will help the region; we have a lot of room for advancement and opportunity in the area. When we grow, it helps the community through jobs. Plus, other businesses, like the new hotel chain that opened near Turning Stone, might be attracted to the area.” Mitch Hoffmeister, Turtle Clan
The Oneida Nation filed its trust application in April 2005 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the Oneidas in a long-running dispute with the city of Sherrill regarding unpaid taxes on Indian-owned properties. The Supreme Court ruled ancestral land reacquired by the Nation was not sovereign. As a result, the land was taxable and subject to non-Oneida government controls. However, the court suggested the Oneidas consider placing reacquired lands in trust. Lands that are held in federal trust cannot be alienated (sold, foreclosed, etc.) without the consent of the federal government.
Madison and Oneida counties, the state, and several residents opposed the application, arguing that trust land would create a checkerboard of jurisdictions that would strain government.
The Oneidas said rejection of the trust could jeopardize the nearly 5,000 jobs and threaten the welfare of 1,000 Nation members.
How would the land into trust affect Turning Stone?
“If the land does go into trust, it will be good for our businesses, which will benefit us and the community at large. I want to see our Nation and the surrounding communities prosper and grow together.” Margaret Splain, Turtle Clan
The trust land decision covers many of the Oneidas’ economic enterprises, including Turning Stone Resort and Casino, four golf courses, and several SāvOn convenience stores. Placing these properties into trust ensures economic stability for the region and secures nearly 5,000 jobs.
Why is the land into trust so important to the Oneidas?
“My great-grandmother, Daisy Laforte (Turtle Clan), was one of the first Oneidas to go to D.C. to fight for our land. I think she would have loved to see this in her time. My mom (whose mother was Turtle Clan Mother Ruth Burr) never thought she’d see it, but now she will. I hope it does go through and that the federal government finally recognizes its treaty obligations to us – a treaty signed by George Washington. This land is where we started and this is where we belong.” Tamra Rood, Turtle Clan
The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 gives the Department of Interior the ability to take land into trust as a way to compensate for the unjust taking of tribal lands.
From time immemorial, long before the United States came into existence, the Oneidas inhabited 6 million acres of land stretching from the St. Lawrence River to the Pennsylvania border.
The 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua recognized at least 250,000 acres belonging to the Oneidas.
Through various illegal land deals, the Oneidas’ land was whittled to 32 acres.
In May 2008, after years of court battles, hearings, and meetings, the Department of Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs recommended placing 13,004 (13,003.89) acres of land into trust for the Oneidas.
The land to be placed into trust represents approximately 1 percent of the available land in Oneida and Madison counties. It includes Turning Stone Resort and Casino, the 32-acre territory, and many of the Oneida’s government and cultural offices.
What exactly are tribal trust lands?
“I think the decision was positive. I’m living in one of the Nation’s homes in Vernon. And now, this will mean my kids will have a home, a place to bring up their kids. It means the future.” Candice Relyea, Wolf Clan
The federal government holds the title to tribal trust land for the benefit of current and future generations of tribal members. The land falls under tribal government authority and is generally not subject to state laws. Trust status also imposes limitations on land use and requires federal approval for most development or other actions.
The 13,004 acres contains 80 percent of the Nation’s housing, a majority of its government services, Turning Stone Resort Casino and golf courses, four of the 12 SāvOn locations, and approximately 9,700 acres of farmland.
How would land into trust affect area communities? How would it affect me?
“I believe it’s a good thing for Members and non-Members alike. We’ve been fighting for decades for our land. Now, finally all Oneidas will be able to live together again.” Melissa Bembry, Turtle Clan
The BIA determined that county and local governments would lose an estimated $2.19 million in property taxes annually, not including the contested assessment on the casino. However, the BIA also found that any loss would be offset by the growth of income, sales, and property taxes paid by the Oneidas’ nearly 5,000 employees. • In fiscal 2007, the Nation's workforce paid $21.5 million in payroll taxes, including federal income taxes and Social Security/Medicare taxes. • The Nation's workforce paid $4.3 million in state income taxes. BIA officials also found that the land into trust would not place greater demands on local community facilities and services.
Do local or state governments have any say in the land into trust process?
“I hope officials take this opportunity to work with the Nation to make everyone in the communities’ lives better. We have a chance to build a strong base together. The sooner this is resolved, the sooner we can move forward.” Sharlene Lascelles, Bear Clan
During the BIA’s three-year investigation and review process, state, county and local government representatives had many opportunities to express their concerns and opinions in writing, in meetings with BIA officials, and in public hearings. Federal officials also contacted state and local governments before issuing the land-into-trust decision.
Many leaders have expressed an interest in negotiating with the Oneidas and talks are ongoing. Land into trust regulations give local and state governments the right to appeal a secretarial decision both within the DOI and in federal courts.
The land into trust decision is a major step forward for the Nation, although hurdles still lie ahead: to date, seven suits have been filed in federal court challenging the decision.
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