A most encouraging sign emerged earlier this week, when St. Regis Mohawk tribal chiefs endorsed the offer of negotiations with New York state to try to resolve centuries-old land claims.
In a federal court decision that prompted that endorsement, District Court Judge Lawrence Kahn upheld the dismissal of tribal suits over about 10,000 acres of land owned by the United States or its citizens but claimed by the Mohawks.
However, he agreed that the Mohawks have legitimate claim to about 2,000 acres known as the Bombay Triangle, to which they have ownership dating back to a treaty drawn up in 1796.
That settles part of the problem, but the Mohawks still contend that they own the rest.
Some of the other lands are owned by U.S. citizens, and turning those territories over to the Indians would constitute an unreasonable seizure of that property, the court declared.
The Mohawks view themselves as a nation unto themselves, separate from the United States. Thus, on previous occasions, Indians have questioned the validity of a ruling by a court of the United States. A separate, sovereign nation shouldn’t be bound a court order issued in a neighboring country.
This time, St. Regis Chiefs Ron LaFrance and Paul Thompson indicated that although the tribe may continue its legal fight, they place more hope for a favorable settlement in negotiations.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has offered to bring parties to the table to try to reach an agreement satisfactory to all. This is the first time in many years that the Mohawks have responded positively to the idea, and it would be in the best interest of everyone for talks to begin.
Mohawks and New York reached an agreement in 2005, which Franklin and St. Lawrence counties rejected, that would have, in part, given the tribe $30 million and the power to buy more than 7,000 acres from willing sellers, land that would become part of the reservation. The counties would have been paid $4 million for losses to their tax rolls, but they said that was not enough.
Had the deal gone through, the Mohawks would have ended their opposition to relicensing the New York Power Authority hydropower operation on Barnhart Island. In exchange, NYPA would have paid the tribe $2 million a year for 35 years and relinquished ownership of two islands in the St. Lawrence River: Croil Island and Long Sault Island.
This is the first glimmer of hope since then: for the Mohawks, who want what they sincerely believe is theirs and has been usurped illegally, and for New York and its citizens, who believe generations of occupation, ownership and taxation entitle them to the land.
But, up until now, negotiation to resolve the issue has rarely been tried. The court process is expensive and, as far as the Mohawks are concerned, inconclusive. It’s time to see what face-to-face bargaining can accomplish.