The Peacemakers: Inside New York and Oneida's Historic Agreement
In less than a month of intense negotiations, decades of animosity and contentious lawsuits between the Oneida Indian Nation and the state of New York were brought to a close in a historic agreement that, if approved by the state legislature, will resolve all disputes between the two sovereigns over land rights, tax issues, gaming exclusivity and profits.
Ray Halbritter, Oneida Indian Nation Representative, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the monumental agreement that will recognize the Oneida Nation’s reservation, settle all outstanding litigation and resolve all disputes over property and sales taxes, including cigarette and fuel sales, at a press conference in Albany, the state capital, on May 16. The agreement also entails payments of tens of millions of dollars from the Oneida Nation, and concession of a gaming exclusivity zone by the state.
“This is indeed a defining moment in the history of the Oneida Nation and New York state,” Halbritter said. “Together today we begin a partnership in our shared prosperity in our upstate region. It’s not unlike the historical relationship the Oneida Nation had in the historical time of the Revolutionary War, when we were all under the Treaty of Canandaigua. We recognize together with the United States that peace and friendship shall be perpetual between our Nations and we’re here in that spirit today,” he said at the press conference.
“This is a fair and reasonable agreement that will benefit all parties involved and the people of the Oneida Nation, Oneida and Madison [counties], and all New Yorkers,” Cuomo said. The agreement “ends years of expensive and disruptive court battles for all parties involved and marks a new era of collaboration and commonality between the Oneida Nation and the state of New York,” Cuomo said.
The deal was hammered out in negotiations that began on April 25, when Cuomo personally contacted the Oneida Indian Nation. “The governor’s office reached out to us and initiated discussions and we talked to things that are important to us and the more we talked the more we could see the possibility of [reaching an agreement] with all the parties we thought were important,” Halbritter told Indian Country Today Media Network, which is owned by the Oneida Nation. “So it was discussion and negotiation that was initially done at the governor’s call, and it proceeded from there. He really took a real leadership role to make it happen.”
Among the important parties involved in the negotiations were Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente and Madison County Chairman John Becker, who will be signatories to the finalized agreement. Both men were brought into the negotiations shortly after Cuomo’s initial call to Oneida. The governor summoned the two county leaders, who had waged legal battles against the Oneida Nation for decades, to the governor’s office the next day, The Post-Standard reported. Cuomo warned both counties that if they didn’t go along with the plan—meaning if they didn’t drop their lawsuits and tax claims against the Oneida Nation—the counties would forfeit a share of the Oneida Nation’s payments that were under negotiation, and the state would stop funding the counties’ three lawsuits against the Oneida Nation.
As part of the settlement, the Oneida Nation will pay the state an amount equal to 25 percent of its net win from slot revenues. The state will pay a quarter of its 25 percent to Oneida County, where the Oneida Nation’s Turning Stone Resort Casino is located. (The initial estimate for that payment is $12.5 million annually.) Madison County will receive a one-time payment of $11 million to compensate for past tax claims. Additionally, the state will make annual payments of $2.5 million to Oneida County and $3.5 million to Madison County from its share.
The Oneida Nation also agreed to a permanent cap of more than 25,000 acres of land to be taken into trust by the Interior Department—17,000 in Oneida County and 8,000 in Madison County—provided that the state and counties not oppose the Oneida Nation’s applications to place most of those lands into trust. This was an important provision for the state, Cuomo said. “The cap provides a limit on the amount of land that can go into trust; it will afford permanence to Oneida County and to Madison County and it effects the resolution of the [Oneida Nation’s] land claims.”
The agreement by the state and the counties not to oppose more than 25,000 acres of trust land was equally or perhaps even more important to the Oneida Nation, Halbritter said. “We have a way of talking about it—We are told that peace is the greatest gift the Creator can give to mankind, and this brings a level of peace from the conflict and I think that’s a really important, intangible quality. And then comes the material aspects of the agreement. They all work together.”
The land has always been the most important element to the Oneida Nation, Halbritter said. “The agreement brings security and finality to the land, which is one of the important goals for us. And, of course, what is land without an economic base? So we were able to secure our land and our economic base, and those two things are pretty important. Other things are too, but the peace, the end of disputes, bringing security to the land and economy—those are the most important elements.”
The Interior Department agreed in 2008 to take into trust a little more than 13,000 acres of the 17,350 acres the tribe owns. Counties opposed that move, but they will now drop their opposition and, as required by the settlement, will support trust land for the entire 17,350 acres.
Halbritter pointed out that the Oneida Nation’s land holdings are not contiguous: “Early in the process, the counties asked us to purchase land that was not really contiguous, so we did that. Some of [the parcels] are contiguous, and with the additional acreage that
we’re now allowed to acquire we’ll probably be able to bring some of those into contiguity, but right now there are pieces here and there.”
Although the agreement caps the amount of trust land the Oneida Nation can acquire at 25,000 acres, it provides an important symbolic acknowledgement of the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua boundaries by recognizing the Oneida’s historic 250,000-acre reservation, and even incorporating a map into the agreement. “The state and all the parties recognized the existence of—and agree to—the 1794 treaty reservation boundaries,” Halbritter said. “On the other hand, we are agreeing not to acquire that much land, so even though the reservation is acknowledged, we’re agreeing to a smaller part of it—one-tenth of it.”
The Oneida Nation can acquire land in fee above the 25,000 acres and use it for off-reservation enterprises under state laws.
In other provisions, the Oneida Nation has agreed to impose a sales tax equal to or greater than New York state and counties’ taxes on cigarettes, motor fuel and other items sold by Indian retailers to non-Indian customers and to abide by the state’s minimum pricing standards on cigarettes. These revenues will be used by the Oneida Nation to provide government services to its citizens as it currently does with revenues from gaming, as required under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.
The negotiated settlement also includes a formal Oneida County–Oneida Nation Special Deputization Agreement that will deputize qualified officers of the Oneida Nation Police Department to enforce state laws on Oneida Nation land, including at Turning Stone Resort Casino.
The parties agree that enforcement of the settlement agreement will take place through the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York, which will retain jurisdiction over the agreement. The agreement requires an annual independent audit of the Oneida Nation’s compliance with the cigarette tax provisions.
Before the agreement can be finalized it has to go to the New York state legislature for approval. The agreement was approved by a 16 to 13 vote by the Oneida County Board of Legislators on May 28. Two days later the Madison County Board of Supervisors voted 847 to 653 in approving the agreement as well.The Interior and Justice departments have roles to play, too, in finalizing the land into trust ruling on the 13,000-acre property and withdrawing the outstanding lawsuits, respectively. Then the agreement will be lodged with the federal district court, which will issue a consent order finalizing it.
The decision to enter negotiations with the state was easy for the Oneida Nation, Halbritter said. “We’ve been here since before America was founded. We helped to found America by our battles during the Revolutionary War on their side, and by helping them in numerous ways that are yet to be well known. So we’ve been prepared for this discussion for a long, long time. We’ve always been willing to entertain this kind of discussion, so we were pleased when the governor did decide to call, and we are pleased to have this result.”
Asked to speculate on what prompted the governor to pursue these negotiations, Halbritter told ICTMN that a number of factors must have played into the decision, including happenstance. “I think it’s just the way sometimes these things happen,” he said. “But I also think the upstate economy was an issue. I think the desire to look at ways to create revenue—the state’s financial condition—was an issue. I think part of it was a desire for him to do something for the critical economic plight upstate. And I think he genuinely has a desire to do something good while he’s in a position to influence an outcome.”
How will this agreement play out with the other tribal nations in the Haudenosaunee Confederacy? Less than a week after the Oneida agreement was announced, St. Regis Mohawk Tribe announced a gaming accord with the state that will guarantee a casino exclusivity zone. The Seneca Indian Nation still has outstanding issues with the state and is in negotiations, Halbritter said. “I think the fact that we can reach agreement in itself is significant. Reaching agreement has always been preferable to us—that’s where treaties came from.” Halbritter added that the Oneida Nation wouldn’t presume to be a model for any other tribe. “We’re just doing something we think fits our particular circumstances, and we know that the other nations have very good leadership that will do the same for their nations.”
No agreement as sweeping and important as the one just hammered out between Oneida and the state is ever going to get either party everything it wants. “We knew this from the beginning,” Halbritter said. “Nobody got everything they wanted, but we got enough to be able to walk down the road together again. As we were allies in the Revolutionary War, we’re now partners in peace.”