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Cayuga Nation sues federal government over delay in trust application

Cayuga Nation sues federal government over delay in trust application

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Clint Halftown of the Cayuga Nation speaks at a meeting of the Cayuga County Legislature in 2014

The Cayuga Nation said it has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Interior and its leaders over its failure to make a decision on a 15-year-old application to take land the nation owns into protective trust.

The land-into-trust application involves Cayuga Nation properties in Cayuga and Seneca counties. The nation sought federal trust status on these parcels in 2005 following a U.S. Supreme Court decision that year saying properties that Indian nations purchased on the open market don't automatically become exempt from local and state taxes and other laws. Instead, the highest court said the land-into-trust process was the vehicle for establishing sovereignty on this type of land.

The Cayuga Nation lawsuit was filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia. The nation said that in the 15 years the application has been pending, the Department of Interior has issued final decisions on over 2,000 other trust applications.

“The failure or refusal on the part of the Department of Interior to render a decision on our trust application is not merely unreasonable, it is inexcusable,” said Clint Halftown, the Cayuga Nation’s federal representative, in a press release. “It is a flagrant violation of the federal government’s trust responsibility to Indian nations. We were informed as early as 2010 that the review process was complete and that a decision was imminent.”

The Cayuga Nation has suffered damages as a result of the delay because it "has been required to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars pursuing its application as a result of the government’s delays, as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars more litigating the Nation’s sovereign rights — most of which the Nation could have avoided absent the government’s inexcusable violation of its duties," the press release said.

Although the lawsuit said the federal government has failed to act on the application, the Department of Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs actually rejected the original application in a decision made in 2011. At the time, BIA said the application was being removed from consideration because it was incomplete, but it said the nation could resubmit in the future.

Over the next several years, there was little public information disclosed about the application. But in 2018, local government officials in Cayuga and Seneca counties received notification from the BIA the application review was moving forward and the local governments were initially given 30 days to submit a comment.

After receiving an extension of another 30 days, local governments, including Cayuga County, did submit comments stating their opposition to the application.

One issue that has complicated the Cayuga Nation over the years is a still-festering dispute over who is the nation's leadership council under the Cayuga law. The interior department in recent years has sided with Halftown on that question after his council conducted a statement of support campaign. Halftown's council has also formed a police department and judicial system, and earlier this year, a violent clash broke out on land in Seneca Falls where the Cayuga Nation raided and demolished buildings that had been controlled by the opposition faction.

Halftown said he's been trying to meet recently with Department of Interior officials regarding the land-into-trust application but isn't getting a response.

“We submitted this application fully in accordance with federal law and with all of the necessary information," he said. "We have repeatedly asked the federal government for a meeting to explain the reason for the delay and to act on our application. They have refused, and we cannot wait any longer—there is just too much at stake for our citizens.”

Officials with the Department of Interior couldn't be immediately reached for comment on Tuesday.

Executive editor Jeremy Boyer can be reached at (315) 282-2231 or Follow him on Twitter @CitizenBoyer


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