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Federal court upholds recommendation to dismiss majority of land claim suit

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A ruling in the U.S. Northern District of New York Court, Albany, has dismissed the majority of a land claims suit filed by 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 Monday in federal court, which largely affirmed recommendations made by U.S. Magistrate Therese Wiley Dancks in October, found merit in the claim for the return to the Mohawks of the so-called Bombay or Hogansburg Triangle in the middle of the St. Regis Reservation.

It was the latest ruling in a case that has been pending in federal court for more than two decades after claims by the three governments on the transborder reservation — the St. Regis Tribal Council, the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne represented by the Canadian government and the traditional People of the Longhouse — were consolidated in August 1991.

The claim called for 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 to be returned to the Mohawks.

Judge Kahn wrote in his decision the court had reached the result recommended by Judge Dancks and concluded the Hogansburg Triangle was factually distinguishable from the other land parcels at issue. Claims for the other parcels in the suit were dismissed.

“If a parcel were to have a distinctly non-Indian character (e.g., it were heavily developed and owned by non-Indian individuals and entities or heavily regulated by state and local governments), a claim involving the parcel would upset the settled expectations of those non-Indian individuals, entities and interests. If, on the other hand, a parcel were to retain its Indian identity (e.g., it were to remain heavily populated by Indians), it is much less likely that the settled expectations of any non-Indian individuals, entities, or interests would be severely upset or harmed,” Judge Kahn ruled.

“The data ... shows the Hogansburg Triangle has a very different demographic composition from the surrounding area. The census block numbers for blocks wholly within the Hogansburg Triangle and those partially within the Triangle show a non-reservation Indian population in the Triangle of 72 percent of total population in 1990 and 75.7 percent in 2000,” he wrote.

“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 added.

His ruling pointed out that the nonreservation Indian population for the town of Bombay as a whole was 12.1 percent in 1990 and 14.8 percent in 2000. The judge pointed out the Hogansburg Triangle is a relatively small part of the town.

When reached for comment Monday afternoon, St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council officials said they were aware of the decision, but they would be taking a couple of days to “digest it,” noting a statement regarding the ruling will be released later this week.

Since the area referred to by the courts as the Hogansburg Triangle is still heavily populated by Native Americans, the court ruled that parcel can still be debated.

“This case does not involve a displaced group returning to a region and seeking to reclaim large swaths of land or repayment for the lands in question,” Judge Kahn wrote.

Following Judge Dancks’s decision last year, Tribal Chief Ron LaFrance said that even if the tribe were granted ownership of the Bombay Triangle, little would change for its residents.

“We exercise jurisdiction of that area, and we don’t treat people differently than we have for the last hundred-some years. I don’t believe anything would change,” he said last fall.

Massena Town Supervisor Joseph D. Gray said the fact that the claims against Massena were thrown out is good news, for now.

“I would imagine they can appeal it,” he said. “They could go all the way to the Supreme Court.”

Mr. Gray said now that a decision has been handed down, he will review it with the town’s legal counsel to see what impact it ultimately could have on the municipality.

Mr. Gray said he was concerned about the impact the ruling could have on the tribe paying gaming compact funds to the state.

In exchange for the tribe resuming to pay the gaming compact funds to the state, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo agreed to work with the tribe on negotiating a land claims settlement, something that may now no longer be possible.

“The bigger question is what does this mean for the governor’s settlement?” Mr. Gray said. “The question is, can the governor negotiate a settlement for a lawsuit that no longer exists?”

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