On Nov. 27, 2017, an event of immense significance occurred that went completely unnoticed by the local media. The last two lawsuits challenging the federal land-into-trust process were denied a hearing by the Supreme Court of the United States. By allowing the ruling of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals to stand, the Supreme Court was agreeing that the Indian Commerce Clause endows the federal government "plenary" power to take land into trust for Indian tribes without a state's consent. The ramifications of the impact of that denial are incalculable for the citizens of Madison and Oneida Counties, and indeed, the entire country.
The Upstate Citizens for Equality and the town of Vernon filed lawsuits that challenged the power of the federal government to take sovereign state land into trust for an Indian tribe without the state's consent. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a stinging dissent of the court's decision to not hear these lawsuits, and his words portend a dark future for our republic. He wrote that under the court's precedence, "Congress has thus obtained the power to take any state land and strip the State of almost all sovereign power over it 'for the purpose of providing land for Indians.'" He continued, "This means Congress could reduce a State to near nonexistence by taking all land within its borders and declaring it sovereign Indian territory." Thomas closed his dissent thus: "When our precedents permit such an absurd result, something has gone seriously awry. It is time to fix our error. We should have granted certiorari to reexamine our Indian Commerce Clause precedents, instead of standing idly by as Congress, the Executive, and the lower courts stray further and further from the Constitution."
By all indications, the Oneida Indian Nation believes that the 2013 settlement agreement between it and the state now empowers it to take land without even following the land-into-trust process, and we have seen this behavior before. From around 1993 until 2005 the OIN purchased "cherry"-picked properties on the open market, and then blatantly and illegally declared them non-taxable sovereign Indian land in complete violation of federal law. Our federal representatives did and said nothing. It took the lawsuit City of Sherrill v. OIN to end the illegal practice with a 2005 victory in the U.S. Supreme Court.
The OIN now has virtually no opposition. It does whatever it wants with complete impunity. It currently illegally operates a casino in Chittenango that is not on trust land and has no valid gaming compact. Another casino is being built in Bridgeport, which, when opened, will also be illegal.
The interests of the OIN do not coincide with those of the counties. It does not consider itself to be part of our communities. It claims immunity from our laws, taxes, and regulations as it injects itself into our political process and legal system in order to crush free enterprise and maximize its profits.
In a June 2013 letter to her colleagues in the state Legislature, Assemblywoman Claudia Tenney urged them to vote against the 2013 Agreement, describing the above situation as "a tragedy of epic proportions for the people of Central New York." Congresswoman Tenney fully understands all that I have related here. If our situation is to improve, it will undoubtedly require congressional action, but for the past year she has been completely silent. Will she actually do anything now that she is in the position to do so?
Peterman, of Canastota, is vice president for Upstate Citizens for Equality Inc.