AKWESASNE — A federal judge agreed with an earlier court ruling that it would be unfair to disrupt owners now occupying parcels in dispute in the St. Regis Mohawk land-claim area.
However, U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Kahn did agree that about 2,000 acres, known as the Bombay Triangle, are part of the reservation as drawn up in the Treaty of 1796 that established the original reservation boundaries.
Kahn said U.S. Census data showed Mohawk ownership and presence in the claimed areas and that the triangle “does not have a clearly ‘non-Indian’ character.”
Therefore, that specific portion of the Mohawks’ lawsuit can continue through the courts, if the tribe wants to pursue it.
Kahn accepted most of the recommendations made in October by Judge Therese Wiley Dancks.
She had dismissed the Mohawks’ claim to roughly 10,000 acres of land in the towns of Massena and Fort Covington as well as three islands in the St. Lawrence River, including Barnhart Island on which the New York Power Authority Robert Moses Power Dam is situated.
WANT TO NEGOTIATE
In a statement released Tuesday, Tribal Council chiefs said they favor a negotiated settlement to resolve lingering land-claim issues, even though continuing the legal challenge is still an option.
“We are disappointed that Judge Kahn dismissed the tribe and the United States’ arguments with regard to the island claims,” said Chief Ron LaFrance.
He said Kahn based his decision on perceived owner disruption and fairness issues “without fully addressing the ownership and occupation of the islands, where very little disruption would occur had the court allowed the claims to remain.
“Although we feel vindicated with regard to the claims to the original reservation, short of a negotiated settlement of the Mohawk claims, this 32-year-old legal battle is far from over,” he said.
Chief Paul Thompson said the Tribal Council still believes it can negotiate a settlement with the parties involved “rather than continuing to engage in this costly and protracted litigation” between the tribe, the state, Franklin and St. Lawrence counties and the towns of Brasher and Bombay.
“Resolution would bring clarity as well as financial benefits to the local governments and surrounding communities,” he said.
A news release from the Tribal Council states that while land claims remain important to Mohawks, “a legal loss will not change the makeup of the lands at issue and will not resolve the long-standing disputes.”
The parties “could continue to litigate land issues indefinitely” since there are also separate land-into-trust and a reservation-boundary claims to resolve.
LaFrance said the parties have spent millions on the legal battle, “and it is time to come together and resolve the matter among the Mohawks and our neighbors and partners.”
The starting point would be the 2005 settlement that was never ratified by the counties, which would have let Mohawks buy disputed lands from willing sellers and have those parcels forever recognized as part of the St. Regis Reservation from then on.
The 2005 agreement was part of a plan to allow for sharing of slot-machine revenue between the state and counties, which has meant millions to those involved.
But Thompson said that while the state, counties and town have gotten their money, the Mohawks have received none of what they were supposed to receive because the deal was never ratified.
And that may be where Gov. Andrew Cuomo can help.
“We believe … we are closer than ever before to reaching accord with the counties and towns,” said Thompson, referring to a promise the governor made in May to find a positive outcome to the dispute.
He said the tribe “believes the governor will honor his commitment to see a negotiated resolution of our land claims.”
The chief said Kahn’s ruling “does not change the fact that negotiated settlement remains in all parties’ best interest” and that the tribe would rather spend its money “on economic development that benefits the North Country than to continue litigation that, at the end of the day, benefits no one.”
LaFrance agreed, saying “we prefer a negotiated settlement to taking lands into trust” which he said is “expensive and time consuming, and while it remains an option to the tribe, would result in lands being taken without agreement of the local governments.
“We understand that this will only continue the disputes over land that we’ve all endured for hundreds of years,” he said.
Email Denise A. Raymo:firstname.lastname@example.org