There is a common misperception that the Oneida Indian Nation’s land holdings must be taken into trust by the federal government before such land officially becomes “reservation land” and therefore non-taxable. That is not the case.
Indian land does not have to be held in trust by the U.S. government in order for it to be considered a “reservation.”
The U.S. government does own many Indian reservations throughout the country. But there are important differences between the reservations of Indians who have lived on their ancestral lands since time immemorial and the reservations of Indians who have been moved from their home territories to government-owned reservations.
There are two types of Indian land – trust land and non-trust land. Trust land is owned by the federal government for the exclusive benefit of an individual Indian or a tribe. Non-trust land is owned solely by an Indian or a tribe. All Indian land – trust or non-trust – is subject to the control of Congress.
The federal government established the “trust” system when it began moving entire tribes westward in order to make room for expanding European settlements. For example, when the Cherokee were moved from their ancestral lands in the East to the Oklahoma territory, the federal government held the Oklahoma reservation in trust for the tribe.
When the Oneida Nation’s reservation was established in New York, it was carved out of land already owned and controlled by the Oneidas. There was no need for the U.S. government to acquire title to the Oneidas’ reservation; the Oneidas’ title already was recognized and federal law already established that the Oneidas could give up their title only to the federal government, or with the federal government’s consent.
There are several Indian reservations in upstate New York – Onondaga, near Syracuse; Akwesasne, home of the St. Regis Band of Mohawk Indians, near Massena; Cattaraugus, Allegheny and Tonawanda, belonging to the Seneca Nation of Indians; the Tuscarora reservation near Lewiston; and the Oneida Indian Nation’s territory between Utica and Syracuse, as defined in the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua. None of these reservations is held in trust by the U.S. government. They are ancestral lands of the respective Indian nations, and the Indian title to those lands never has been extinguished.
Only the federal government has the authority to change the boundaries of a reservation, and such changes must be stated explicitly in legislation passed by Congress and signed by the President of the United States.
The Oneidas’ title to the land reserved to them under the Treaty of Canandaigua never has been extinguished, and Congress never has changed the boundaries of that reservation. In 1985, the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed that those boundaries and the Oneida Nation’s title to the land within those boundaries still exist.
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