Hostility builds over Indian land claim in N.Y.

There's a 250,000-acre patch of land in the middle of New York where history is as fresh as a just-plucked ear of corn, where signs of a bitter debate over who is a legitimate landowner, a victim, or a racist keep cropping up amid the pastoral scenery of willow trees and grazing cows.

Oneida Indians claim this land, and for the first time in a 200-year fight they may be close to being compensated for the loss of it.

If they are, their victory will close one of the most long-fought chapters in US-Indian history, and further cement the right of dispersed East Coast tribes to recoup land or money from states that long ago snatched their territory.

What the Oneidas see as progress, however, has led to local tensions that have torn apart families and friendships. To spur New York State to settle their claim, the Oneidas recently added 20,000 non-Indian property owners as defendants in their case - a move that the most charitable characterize as unneighborly and the angriest see as a virtual act of war.

"There's a powder keg out there.... It will take a very small spark," warns Michael Gaiser, who runs a small inn down the road from the tribe's prosperous casino resort.

Behind the scenes is a well of resentment on all sides - over ancient history, over the tribe's current prosperity from its gambling casino, and over the right to build a future on these gently rolling acres.

Indeed, as the Oneidas have gained the upper hand, in both the lawsuit and the local economy, hostility is spilling into the open. Citizen groups have formed, and some people have posted signs along the roads near the Oneida reservation. One, depicting a man pointing a shotgun, challenges the tribe's leader to "come get your rent."

In the pantheon of Indian law, this case paved the way for at least a half dozen Indian land claims on the East Coast, stretching from Maine to South Carolina. In a twist of irony, those cases have been resolved, while this one eludes a settlement.

"The irony is, the people who brought ... suit first are the last to get reparations or compensation," says Laurence Hauptman, a historian at the State University of New York in New Paltz and the author of several books about the Oneidas.

THE dispute has its roots in the very formation of the United States. For thousands of years, Oneidas occupied about 6 million acres, from the St. Lawrence River to what is now the New York-Pennsylvania border, says Anthony Wonderley, a historian for the New York Oneidas.

The Oneidas take pride in their role as allies of the patriots during the Revolutionary War, but during that conflict, many of their villages were destroyed. When the smoke cleared, their sovereignty was reaffirmed in a 1794 treaty, but it applied only to the currently disputed 250,000 acres.

New York then acquired most of that land through treaties, which the Oneidas say were coerced. "The State of New York, not long after the Revolutionary War, set about on an extraordinary effort to acquire all the Indian land in the state..., and it largely succeeded," says Tim Coulter of the Indian Law Resource Center in Helena, Mont.

During this process, in the 1800s, many Oneidas moved to Canada or Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Oneidas, especially, have played a role in crafting the strategy for the New York case.

By 1919, the Oneida reservation in New York had been whittled to 32 acres - just big enough for a few cultural centers and housing for a few of the 1,100 tribal members in New York.

In the Oneida's fight to regain some of their land, a breakthrough did not come until 1974, when the US Supreme Court ruled that Indian groups can sue under a 1790 law requiring federal approval for transference of Indian land.

A judgment on the Oneidas' specific land claim came in 1985, with the high court ruling that New York had wrongly dispossessed the Indians. Negotiations followed, but for years progress was slow. Mediator Ronald Riccio now expects a settlement by the end of the year, but he cannot discuss details.

Meanwhile, the New York Oneidas, using gambling revenues, have bought 11,000 acres of the disputed territory. The Oneida Nation is now the area's largest employer, with a payroll topping $80 million a year.

Ray Halbritter, chief representative of the New York Oneidas, insists there can be a resolution that will bring jobs and prosperity to the area, which remains largely untouched by the Midas economy. He has also tried to assuage property owners' concerns about being added to the lawsuit, saying repeatedly that landowners will not be evicted.

But those assurances ring hollow to some here. A number of them have been boycotting the Oneidas' casino complex and chain of gas stations. The worst blow, some say, is that their own federal government is fighting them by backing the Oneidas' suit.

Moreover, Oneida enterprises are driving other businesses under, says Mr. Gaiser, a member of Upstate Citizens for Equality (UCE), a citizens group now 5,000 strong. "The [Oneida's] hotel took away 14 of our reservations ... in the first year," he says of the inn he runs with his wife, Debbie.

UCE's argument is philosophical, too. "Nothing is more profoundly racist than to define group membership on a genetic basis.... They call us racist? I don't get it," says UCE spokeswoman Susan Galbraith.

Complicating the negotiations is a dispute within the tribe over the legitimacy of Mr. Halbritter's leadership. Halbritter says his leadership, in conjunction with a men's council and a group of clan mothers, has been recognized by governments, courts, and tribal members.

Even if the case is resolved soon, hard feelings may not abate quickly. People such as the Gaisers say they can't envision any settlement that will relieve the hurt the land-claim suit has caused.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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