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SENECA NATION'S LAND CLAIM COULD TAKE DECADES TO RESOLVE

If the Senecas' attempt to regain Grand Island follows the legal path of previous land claims by Indian tribes against New York State, it could be decades before a decision is reached.

The Oneida Nation, left with only 32 acres of its aboriginal lands in New York State, in 1970 initiated a claim for the return of 250,000 acres of land it once held in Oneida and Madison counties in 1970.

After a 15-year legal battle, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Indians did have a "possessory right to the land claimed" and directed further action to assess the amount of damages and fair compensation to the Oneidas.

The Oneidas still are waiting to be paid.

The Cayugas, who lost all of their homeland in the Finger Lakes region in the late 1700s and early 1800s, filed a land claim in 1980 for the return of 64,000 acres.

Sixteen years later, the Cayugas accepted an offer from New York State to settle their land claim.

But last Jan. 28, Chief Frank C. Bonamie informed his tribal members that the offer was withdrawn by the state.

In 1982, the Mohawks brought an action to reclaim 10,500 acres of their ancestral land that borders their reservation in Franklin and St. Lawrence counties.

To date, nothing has been resolved.

Land claims take a minimum of 10 years to be resolved, according to Christopher Vecsey and William A. Starna, two academics who have done extensive research on the subject.

"Given the political nature of the claims . . .," the two men wrote, "most observers believe it takes at least 10 years, or longer, for settlements to be reached."

But even when the Indians are successful in winning land claims -- as in the case of the Oneidas and the Cayugas -- the professors assure the surrounding non-Indian communities that they should not too concerned.

"Contrary to innumerable rumors and disinformation, private landowners will not be deprived of their property, nor will Indians run lawless through communities and about the state," they say.

In the case of the Seneca land claim, it is being brought by both the Seneca Nation and the Tonawanda Band of Senecas. And although they are on the same side in this land claim, they are two different political groups.

The Band formally separated from the Seneca Nation of Indians in 1849 after the nation decided to replace its chieftain rule with an elected form of government. The Seneca Nation is located on the Cattaraugus and Allegany reservations.

The Tonawanda Senecas have 1,050 enrolled members, about half of whom live on a 7,549-acre reserve near Akron.

In the case of the Oneidas, their leader has taken another strategic maneuver.

Since the Oneidas have not been paid, Ray Halbritter, the nation's leader, since 1992 has purchased more than 4,000 acres of land within the land claim and declared in part of the reservation.

And in 1993, he opened the first Indian casino in New York State, adjacent to Thruway exit 33, near Verona.

More recently, he also has announced plans to build a second casino just off the Canastota exit of the Thruway, about 10 miles west of Verona.

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