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Federal judge recommends partially upholding Tribal land claim

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MALONE - A federal court handed down a recommendation on Monday in the decades-old class action Indian land claim lawsuit that is partially favorable to the plaintiff parties, which include the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, the People of the Longhouse, and the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Therèse Wiley Dancks recommended upholding the plaintiffs’ claim to the 2,000-acre so-called “Hogansburg Triangle.” She recommended dismissing claims to about 10,000 acres located in the towns of Fort Covington and Massena and to Barnhardt, Croil, and Long Sault islands on the St. Lawrence River. Barnhardt Island houses part of the Robert Moses Power Dam; Long Sault Island houses part of the Long Sault dam, which keeps 90 feet of water from washing into the lower portion of the St. Lawrence Seaway and also controls water levels in the upper part of the seaway.

In addition to ownership of the land, the plaintiffs are seeking “injunctive relief ejecting the defendants and members of the defendant class from the subject land, according to court documents.” The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe seeks rent for the period of time they have been denied ownership of the land, since the mid-1800s, along with the value of minerals and resources taken from it and damages for pollution and destruction brought on by the defendants, which include New York state, the town and village of Massena, the towns of Fort Covington and Bombay, state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, the New York Power Authority, and Niagara Mohawk Power Company.

A Monday news release from the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe stated that the case will now go on to a senior district court judge, a process that “could take six months or more if the parties receive extensions or the judge does not rule quickly.” The release states this could have two possible outcomes :the opposing parties would have to litigate the merits of the Hogansburg Triangle claim, or the defendants could ask the new judge to certify his decision for an appeal to the Second Circuit Court.

“Our case for the Hogansburg Triangle has not been dismissed and we will continue to litigate and fight to get our land back for as long as it takes,” St. Regis Mohawk Chief Randy Hart said in a news release.

Doctrine of laches weighed heavily

Judge Dancks, in her ruling, denied the claims mainly on the doctrine of laches. Laches means in the absence of a statute of limitations, a court can decide that “a legal right or claim will not be enforced or allowed if a long delay in asserting the right or claim has prejudiced the adverse party (hurt the opponent) as a sort of ‘legal ambush’,” according to law.com. In this case, Judge Dancks cited the 2005 case City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York, the 2005 case Cayuga Indian Nation of New York v. Pataki, and the 2010 case Oneida Indian Nation of New York v. County of Oneida. The three combined established that when a Native land claim is made to an area that is primarily non-Native, has a distinctly non-Native culture and character, and the alleged wrongful taking is significantly in the past, re-granting Native sovereignty would create a disruption too extreme to justify.

The judge recommended upholding the Hogansburg Triangle claim because evidence provided shows that it has a Mohawk population significant enough to consider a Tribal claim. The evidence included U.S. census figures for the town of Bombay from 1980, 1990, and 2000, which showed a Native population of 8.7%, 12%, and 14.9%, respectively, according to Judge Dancks’ recommendation. The plaintiffs submitted tailored census information showing the Native population of just the Triangle to be 75% Native in 2000, but the judge did not consider it in the ruling.

In neighboring St. Lawrence County, 1980, 1990, and 2000 census figures show Native population percentages of .386%, .733%, and .873%, respectively.

History

The U.S. signed the Seven Nations of Canada Treaty of 1796, which that year set up the boundaries of the present-day St. Regis Mohawk reservation.

In 1790, the Indian Non-Intercourse Act passed, which stated that only Congressional Action can alter reservation boundaries.

The plaintiffs in the land claim lawsuit alleged that New York state violated the Non-Intercourse Act multiple times between 1816 and 1845 by buying pieces of the St. Regis reservation, leaving it in the shape it is seen as on a map today:

■ March 15, 1816 – New York state 640 acres on the Salmon River that had been reserved by the St. Regis Mohawks and 5,000 acres on the eastern border of the 1796 reservation.

■ Feb. 20, 1818 – New York state purchased 2,000 acres bordered on the east by land ceded in the 1816 treaty, along with a narrow swath of land through the reserve that today is state Route 37.

■ March 16, 1824 – The state purchased a 640-acre tract on the Grasse River.

■ June 12, Dec. 14, 1824 and Sept. 25, 1825 – The 2,000 acres of the so-called Bombay Triangle.

■ Feb. 21, 1845 – The state bought 210 acres, the so-called Grasse River meadows.

The claim to Barnhardt, Croil, and Long Sault islands goes back to the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War and set the boundary between the U.S. and British North America in the middle of the St. Lawrence River. The British, prior to the War of 1812, considered the islands to belong to the St. Regis Mohawks. The Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812, gave the islands back to the Americans. The treaty stated that “the rights of the [St. Regis Mohawks] were not to be affected by any resettling of the boundaries,” according to court documents.

Over time, New York state doled out chunks of the islands to private property owners, in violation of the Non-Intercourse Act, the plaintiffs alleged in the recommendation. But court documents state the St. Regis Mohawks were paid compensation in 1851 and 1855 by descendants of the private property owners. New York state paid a stipend for use of the islands in 1856, according to the recommendation. Eventually, the New York Power Authority eventually acquired the islands to construct the Robert Moses hydroelectric power dam. The defendants allege the construction and partial flooding caused by the project have left parts of them “unfit for use,” according to Judge Danck’s recommendation.

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