U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer has called on Attorney General Janet Reno to remove current Grand Island landowners from a Seneca Nation lawsuit the Justice Department has been supporting.
The letter by the New York Democrat follows a federal judge's ruling in Syracuse that private landowners cannot be added to a lawsuit against the state by the Oneida Nation that seeks return of its ancestral lands.
"While I recognize that the (Senecas') land claim has remained unsettled for far too long," Schumer wrote to Reno, "I strongly disagree with the Department of Justice decision to name individual landowners as defendants.
"The Grand Island homeowners, like the homeowners involved in the (Oneida) cases in New York State, are innocent parties and should not serve as bargaining chips."
He called the Justice Department's decision to file for eviction of current landowners from Grand Island properties "unnecessarily divisive and even counterproductive."
The Senecas filed the land claim in U.S. District Court in Buffalo in 1993, seeking ownership of 18,600 acres on 18 islands in the Niagara River. Grand Island contains 17,000 of those disputed acres.
The Justice Department joined the Senecas' claim against New York State in 1998 and named Grand Island homeowners as defendants.
Apparently, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt was party to the decision to include homeowners as defendants. At the time that the property owners were made defendants, along with the state, Babbitt said, "Although we are intervening and are willing to litigate the case, we are also willing to engage in serious settlement discussions with the state and the Senecas."
Reno decided to remove the "ejectment clause" from a similar Justice Department action backing up the Oneidas' claim.
The judge in that case also barred the Oneidas from seeking monetary damages from current landowners in their claim to 250,000 acres in Oneida and Madison counties.
Schumer had been active in the Oneida situation for several months, urging the Justice Department to relieve current property owners from potential liability for any type of damages. He even warned a senior Justice Department official who played a role in the suit that his nomination by President Clinton for a top job in the department would be put on hold.
The federal suit, like the Senecas' original filing, said the state tried to buy the Niagara River islands from the Indians in 1815 without the consent of Congress. A 1790 federal law barred the purchase of land from Indian tribes without congressional approval.
The other defendants include Erie County, the State Thruway Authority and Ronald Coan, executive director of the Erie County Industrial Development Agency.