Gov. George E. Pataki called on the federal government Wednesday to withdraw all demands against individual landowners in its Indian land claims on Grand Island and elsewhere in New York.
Pataki's statement followed by a day similar criticism of the Justice Department by Sen. Charles E. Schumer. Both men were reacting to a decision by U.S. District Judge Neil P. McGurn, throwing out the federal government's demand that individual landowners be held responsible for the state's seizing of Native American lands 185 years ago in violation of a 1790 act of Congress.
The Justice Department indicated Wednesday it will not hold individuals liable for the taking of Indian lands but said the governor "ignores the fact that the federal government is obligated by law to right some of the wrongs done to Native Americans."
"It was the State of New York that originally deprived the Native Americans of their land illegally," the department said in an unsigned news release. "It is the Justice Department's position that the state -- not the landowners -- should be held responsible for the wrong committed by the state."
The government's statement did not directly address Pataki's complaint that the Justice Department suit still holds individual homeowners on Grand Island and elsewhere financially liable for living on Indian land.
The Republican governor referred six times to the "Clinton administration" in his statement, accusing it of arrogance, "bad-faith political maneuvering" and making "outrageous claims."
With less than six weeks to go in an effort by Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton to win a Senate seat, these highly charged comments are unlikely to be lost on upstate supporters of her Republican opponent, Rep. Rick A. Lazio of Babylon.
"The Clinton administration has arrogantly refused to end its outrageous lawsuits against the people of New York, choosing instead to use homeowners in Western New York, Central New York and Northern New York like pawns in its legal strategy," Pataki said in a prepared statement.
Spokesmen for the governor said Pataki did not say in this statement that the Justice Department should completely drop its 1998 filing against the state government, which buttressed other suits brought by Native American groups.
To do that, experts here said, would give New York an opening to go to state court to compel the Indian nations to drop all of their claims made since 1993.
The Justice Department acted two years ago to protect the Indian nations' rights in federal court.
"It would be extraordinary for the Justice Department to drop entirely out of the suit," said a legal aide to Schumer, D-N.Y., who made an appeal to Attorney General Janet Reno on Tuesday that is similar to Pataki's in substance.
The Seneca Nation is suing the state and others for damages in the loss of 18,000 acres on islands in the Niagara River, the largest of which is Grand Island. The Oneida Nation wants damages for the loss of 250,000 acres in Oneida and Madison counties.
The Cayugas and Mohawks are suing the state and individual property owners for damages in other counties.
The governor and the senator intervened in behalf of the landowners months ago. In negotiations between the Justice Department and the landowners, the federal government said it would be willing to protect the landowners against eviction but not necessarily against paying the Indians financial damages.
Pataki called on the Clinton administration to guarantee that it would not appeal McGurn's ruling. The governor also demanded that the Clinton administration abandon all plans to evict homeowners and to recover financial damages from them in the other suits -- those brought in Erie County, on the banks of the Cattaraugus Creek and in the North Country.
"The Clinton administration should not wait for another federal judge to say their actions amount to bad faith," Pataki said, "before dropping these outrageous claims that threaten the private property rights of thousands of innocent New York State citizens."
The Justice Department statement said, "We are pleased that the court's decision allows us to sue the state as the original wrongdoer."