AKWESASNE — Renewed hope has the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council calling on the state, Franklin County and St. Lawrence County to settle longstanding land-claims issues.
The Mohawk tribe was the only one in New York that did not have its land claim against the state completely thrown out in a September ruling from the Second Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals.
The portion remaining legally alive involves the Bombay Triangle, which is land near the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino.
But the tribe is trying at the same time to reinstate its claim to parts of Fort Covington and to three islands in the St. Lawrence River, according to a news release from the Tribal Council.
One of those is Barnhart Island, on which the New York Power Authority hydroelectric plant stands.
The council, which is the governing body on the American side of the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation, is among three representative governments involved in the land-claims suit, along with the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne on Canadian side and the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs representing the Iroquois Confederacy.
In a ruling from the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of New York, Magistrate Therese Wiley Dancks said the Mohawks had established that Native people have lived on the triangle land continuously, unlike the Cayuga and Oneida tribes.
In supporting that stance, attorneys for the U.S. Department of Interior and U.S. Department of Justice filed a brief saying, “in other New York land claims ... dismissed by the Second Circuit, it was inarguable that the lands at issue had become heavily populated and developed by non-Indians in the years since New York unlawfully acquired the lands.
“That is not true here. The Mohawks … never departed the region and have remained a powerful, enduring presence both as a government and as a population in the region and within the specific claim areas.”
Tribal Council Chief Randy Hart said the U.S. government’s argument “supports the tribe’s efforts and their own interests as owners of the underlying title to some of the islands that make up the (Power Authority’s) power project.”
The other islands involved are Croil Island and Long Sault.
Dancks’s recommendation that the specific portions of the land claim be allowed to continue must now go to U.S. District Court Senior Magistrate Neil McCurn for a ruling.
The Tribal Council said the tribe wants to resolve the land-claims dispute and nearly did seven years ago.
“In 2005, we had an agreement signed by all parties, including the state, the counties and the New York Power Authority,” said Chief Paul Thompson. “A negotiated settlement now would be in all parties’ best interests.”
And although the land-claims litigation is important to the tribe, state and counties, “a legal loss will not change the makeup of the lands at issue and will not resolve the longstanding disputes between the parties,” the release states.
“Mohawks will continue to own and live on their properties, Franklin County will continue to send tax bills they are unable to collect upon, and both sides will continue to believe that they are right.”
Tribal Council Chief Ron LaFrance called for a meeting of the minds.
“We, and I’m sure the counties and towns, have spent a great deal of money litigating these claims, and it is time to come together and resolve the matter among those most affected: the Mohawks and our neighbors and partners.”
Franklin County Legislature Chairman Gordon Crossman (D-Malone) said he and District 1 Legislator Guy “Tim” Smith (D-Fort Covington) recently met with LaFrance and the tribe’s general counsel, Michelle Mitchell, to get acquainted “because in the past there’s been a kind of ill feeling or a misunderstanding that takes place” between county leadership and the Mohawks.
Crossman believes lawsuit-settlement talks could be productive.
“It’s pretty hard to comment about this because it’s in litigation, but I’m open to talking about that, of course,” he said.
“There has been that distress there in the past, but if we don’t talk to each other, nothing is going to be accomplished at all,” the chairman said.
“I’m always open to talk and enjoy an open-door policy.”
Email Denise A. Raymo: draymo@Pressrepublican.com