Arguments in Oneida Indian land trust case focus on comma in 1983 federal law
by Glenn Coin / The Post-Standard
Wednesday June 24, 2009, 9:03 PM
The placement of a comma could mean the difference between the Oneida Indian Nation getting 13,000 acres of trust land or getting none at all.
Lawyers argued in court Wednesday in Albany about the significance of that comma in a 1983 federal law, and whether it meant the Oneidas were eligible for trust land.
Read one way, the placement of the comma says trust land can only go to tribes that already had trust land, and that would not include the Oneidas.
Read another way, the comma says that any tribe, including the Oneidas, could get trust land even if they didn't have any already.
It was one of many arcane and hotly contested points brought out in a 75-minute court hearing Wednesday. Lawyers for the state, the federal government, Madison and Oneida counties, and the Oneida nation appealed to U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Kahn on matters as diverse as the legality of the Turning Stone casino and the meaning of a unanimous, 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision.
The hearing involved three separate motions in a lawsuit brought by the state and Madison and Oneida counties against the federal government. The state and counties contend that the U.S. Department of Interior's decision in May 2008 to take 13,000 acres into trust for the Oneidas was unconstitutional.
Trust land is owned by the federal government but set aside for a tribe's use. The land is free from taxes and state and local control.
The crux of the issue is whether the federal government has the authority to take that land into trust. The state and counties say no, for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons, they argue, is that the Oneidas voted to opt out of the Indian Reorganization Act. That law gave the federal government the power to take land into trust for tribes. That law was adopted in 1934.
The Oneidas and the federal government argue, however, that a 1983 law, the Indian Land Consolidation Act, fixed that problem and made even those tribes who had originally opted out to be eligible for trust land.
That's where the comma problem comes in.The key sentence in that 1983 law says that the government can take land into trust for any "Indian tribe, band, group, pueblo, or community, for which, or for the members of which, the United States holds lands in trust."
It's the comma after "community" that's at issue.
Does the placement of that comma mean that the restriction of already having land into trust applies only to an Indian "community," which the Oneidas were not? Or does it mean that the restriction of already having trust land applies to all of those categories, including "tribe?"
That's important because the federal government held no trust land for the Oneidas at the time. So it could, theoretically, mean the Oneidas aren't eligible for trust land.
Glenn Coin can be reached at or 470-3251.
07-526 Carcieri v. Salazar (02/24/2009)http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/07-526.ZO.html
NCAI notes that the ILCA’s definition of “tribe” “means any Indian tribe, band, group, pueblo, or community for which, or for the members of which, the United States holds lands in trust.”
§2201. But §2201 is, by its express terms, applicable only to Chapter 24 of Title 25 of the United States Code. Ibid. The IRA is codified in Chapter 14 of Title 25. See §465. Section 2201, therefore, does not itself alter the authority granted to the Secretary by §465.
--------------------------------- There is NO COMMA in the correct document
Trust to fail for the Oneidas and the Cayugas.