Courtesy Laki Terzidis/Oneida Indian Nation
The Oneida Indian Nation and the Bureau of Indian Affairs Regional Office signed deeds marking the 13,004 acres recently put into trust for Central New York tribe. Pictured, from left, are Johnna Blackhair, acting area director BIA Eastern Regional Officer; Ray Halbritter, Oneida Nation Representative; Chuck Fougnier, Oneida Nation Council Member, Wolf Clan; and Beaulah Green, Turtle Clan Mother.

A Milestone Morning for Oneida Land Transfer Ceremony

Gale Courey Toensing

Mary Cornelius Winder (Wolf Clan) was fifty years old in 1948 when she wrote to the Bureau of Indian Affairs asking for payment or the return of the land that the State of New York had taken illegally from the Oneida Indian Nation over the course of the 19th century.

By then, Mary Winder had spent all of her adult life seeking acknowledgment that the Nation’s right to the 300,000 acres of reservation land – a fraction of its six million-acre aboriginal territory – was guaranteed to the Oneida people by the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua. In her appeals for redress, including her 1948 letter, Mary Winder reminded the federal authorities that the newly-formed United States had entered into the treaty promising to protect the Nation’s reservation after Oneida had allied with the revolutionary forces fighting against the British. That alliance had cost the Oneida people war deaths, starvation, and the destruction of their homes and orchards. Mary Winder’s 1948 request fell on deaf ears as did all her previous requests. She died six years later without seeing any of the treaty-guaranteed land restored to her people.

But Mary Winder surely would have had a measure of satisfaction on August 21, 2014, when her grandson Ray Halbritter, Oneida Nation representative and CEO of Nation Enterprises, parent company of Indian Country Today Media Network, signed off on deeds placing 13,004 acres of the Oneida Nation’s vast historic homeland into trust with the Department of the Interior. It is the largest piece of land over which the Oneida Nation has sovereign jurisdiction since 1824.

“We made many sacrifices as a people to make this country what it is today,” Halbritter said in front of a low-key crowd of about 50. “We lost our land as a people and probably not much more is as devastating as losing your land. … More recently we sought to seek justice in the courts.

“…We have reached an agreement where our sovereignty is being recognized and our land is being returned to us in the form of trust lands,” Halbritter continued.

The signing ceremony was unique. Unlike many land into trust transactions, which occur at the massive Department of the Interior building in Washington, D.C, this one took place in the Oneida Councilhouse where the Nation’s traditional ceremonies take place.

Those in attendance sat on wooden benches on a muggy morning with a sky filled with overcast clouds. Thunderstorms could be heard in the distance; the indoor fans had been silenced so everyone could hear. The wooden structure, as Halbritter explained, is a place where the Oneida clans meet to discuss Nation issues, and where ceremonies are held before any meeting. Inside the four wooden walls of the great structure differences are set aside for the betterment of the whole.

Halbritter, Oneida citizens and council members, and federal government officials gathered in the Councilhouse for the ceremony, which began at 11 a.m. Among the federal officials were Johnna Blackhair, Acting Area Director of the Eastern Regional Office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs; John Wayne Smith, BIA Eastern Regional Office Realty Specialist; and Chester McGhee, BIA Eastern Regional Environmental Scientist.

Halbritter introduced Blackhair to speak on behalf of the BIA and the Department of the Interior as part of the official process following his initial speech. Blackhair, now in her third week as acting area director, gave a proper Native introduction in her Cree language, and spoke of her nervousness on the momentous day.

Blackhair stressed that it was a great honor to be in attendance for this signing.

Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn could not attend the signing ceremony and sent his regrets. Former Eastern Regional Director Franklin Keel, who stepped down August 1, was unable to attend the signing ceremony but provided a written statement that was read by McGhee.

Applause was aplenty as the news of the lands being signed into trust was shared. Dale Rood, Oneida Turtle Clan, said, “It’s an amazing time for all of us especially considering what we’ve been able to accomplish.”

Rood, along with Chuck Fougnier, Oneida Wolf Clan, and Beulah Green, Turtle Clan Mother, joined the main table for the ceremony. Halbritter made it a point to single out Green for being a part of the day at 100-years-old.

“It’s been a very long time – almost two centuries – we’ve been dispossessed of this land… it’s been a long and bumpy road but we’re almost there,” Fougnier said.

In a sign of recognition Halbritter presented each member of the BIA with a copy of “Forgotten Allies: The Oneida Indians and the American Revolution” by Joseph T. Glathaar and James Kirby Martin.

When the federal government takes Indian land into trust, it protects an Indian nation’s sovereignty by restricting state and local governments’ from exercising jurisdiction over the land, for example, by imposing taxes or regulations. The Nation has had a long struggle to reach the point of restoring sovereignty to the 13,004-acres by placing them in trust.


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sonnyskyhawk's picture
Submitted by sonnyskyhawk on
A more historic moment than this, does not come to mind for the Oneida Indian Nation of New York. I have been privy to the previous countless efforts and demeaning lawsuits that were involved, and I have nothing but praise for the Nations tenacity to seek justice. It may not have been a pretty pursuit, on behalf of the opposing parties, but a moment of justice and peace has been reached to a large extent. The Oneida ancestors are smiling upon their descendants, and would applaud their accomplishments and deeds.