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Mohawks react to land claim ruling

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AKWESASNE — While St. Regis Mohawk Tribal leaders said they’re happy with this week’s federal court ruling regarding land claims in the Hogansburg Triangle, they want to see other land claim concerns addressed through meetings rather than litigation.

“The Mohawks, and I’m sure the counties and towns, have spent millions of dollars litigating these claims, and it is time to come together and resolve the matter among those most affected, the Mohawks and our neighbors and partners.” Chief Ronald W. LaFrance Jr. said in a news release issued Tuesday afternoon by the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe.

A ruling Monday in the U.S. Northern District of New York Court, Albany, dismissed the majority of a land claims suit filed by the St. Regis Mohawks against the state of New York seeking the return of property in St. Lawrence and Franklin counties.

But the decision filed by Judge Lawrence E. Kahn in federal court, which largely affirmed recommendations made by U.S. Magistrate Theresa Wiley Dancks in October, found merit in the claim for the return of 2,000 acres of the so-called Bombay or Hogansburg Triangle to the Mohawks as part of a 1796 treaty.

The land claims case has been pending in federal courts for more than two decades after the three governments on the reservations — the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council, the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne represented by the Canadian government and the traditional People of the Mohawks — were consolidated in August 1991.

The claim called for the return to the Mohawks of one square mile in the village of Massena, a tract in the town of Massena, two comparable areas in Fort Covington, Barnhart Island, Croil Island and Long Sault Island, as well as land in the town of Bombay known as the Bombay or Hogansburg Triangle.

Judge Kahn said in his ruling that data indicated the Hogansburg Triangle “has a very different demographic composition from the surrounding areas” in terms of the Native-American population. He said that area showed a total 72 percent nonreservation Indian population in 1990 and 75.7 percent in 2000.

“These figures demonstrate a substantial Indian majority and reveal a clear difference between the ethnic composition of the Hogansburg Triangle and that of the surrounding region,” he wrote.

Based on that, the court will allow the Mohawks to continue pursing their legal claims to the areas identified by the court.

In Tuesday’s news release, tribal chiefs said that, in the claim for Barnhart, Croil and Long Sault islands, the United States and the Mohawks “have presented a unique argument that has never been considered in any other land claim because of the particular facts of the case, which indicate a federal, rather than a state original ownership of the lands.”

“We are disappointed that Judge Kahn dismissed the tribe and the United States’ arguments with regard to the island claims. He applied the defense of laches without fully addressing the ownership and occupation of the islands, where very little disruption would occur had the court allowed the claims to remain,” Chief LaFrance said.

Laches is an unreasonable delay pursuing a right or claim in a way that prejudices the opposing party. The person invoking laches is asserting that an opposing party has “slept on its rights,” and that, as a result of this delay, circumstances have changed such that it is no longer just to grant the plaintiff’s original claim.

“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,” Chief LaFrance said.

Tribal officials said that, in addition to land claim litigation, there are also a separate land-into-trust litigation and a boundary claim which requests that the courts recognize the original boundaries of the reservation.

The Mohawks said in the release that they want to resolve the dispute with New York state and the surrounding counties and towns.

“We continue to believe that it would be in the best interest of all parties to resolve this case through settlement, rather than continuing to engage in this costly and protracted litigation. Resolution would bring clarity, as well as financial benefits to the local governments and surrounding communities,” Chief Paul O. Thompson said.

Tribal leaders recalled that as part of lengthy negotiations between the tribe, state and counties, a settlement was reached in 2005 that would allow the Mohawks to purchase, from willing sellers within their original reservation, parcels that would then be recognized as part of the reservation. That settlement was part of larger negotiations, which included revenue sharing provisions from the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino.

However, the tribe had withheld slot machine payments since 2010, citing a casino on the Ganienkeh reservation in Altona as a breach of their gaming exclusivity compact with the state.

They came to an agreement with state officials in May to resume revenue sharing from the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino, ending the dispute. Those talks, which they described as “positive discussions to date,” also included conversations about land claims settlement, and they said they want Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to follow through on that issue.

“The counties and towns have benefited from the revenue sharing provisions negotiated in exchange for settlement, but have as yet refused to implement the 2005 agreement. We believe that with the assistance and support of Governor Andrew Cuomo, we are closer than ever before to reaching accord with the counties and towns,” said Chief Thompson, who was part of the tribal negotiation team leading up to the 2005 land claim and revenue sharing agreements.

“The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe believes that the governor will honor his commitment to see a negotiated resolution of our land claims. This decision does not change the fact that negotiated settlement remains in all parties best interests,” Chief Thompson said.

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