Three Mohawk tribes are headed toward resolving a land dispute between the state of New York and local municipalities over a late 18th century treaty, ending a decadeslong suit that alleged the state illegally bought 2,000 acres within their defined reservation.
Unlike many land claims' settlements, the tribes must also get the approval of the New York Legislature and U.S. Congress before the agreement is finalized because it deals with issues under the Nonintercourse Act and affects the status of lands reserved to the Mohawks through a 1796 treaty.
It's not yet known when a full agreement will be in place, but the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne and the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs said in a June 30 report that "there have been two positive developments in achieving a negotiated settlement" and that negotiations would most likely continue through the end of August.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Therese Wiley Dancks, in a text-only order on Wednesday, said Mohawk tribes must continue to work together in good faith to finalize the settlement terms and agreements with the state of New York and the counties of St. Lawrence and Franklin.
The land suit, filed by the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, first opened in 1982 and had been paused from 2014 to January 2021, when the stay was lifted after the parties failed to settle. Separate land claims were filed by the tribes in 1989, and the cases were consolidated in 1992. In 1998, the United States intervened as a plaintiff in the case.
New York legislators in June approved a bill authorizing Gov. Kathy Hochul to sign an agreement once all parties have given the go-ahead to its final terms. The tribes said that while the bill isn't perfect, it sets the stage to end a 40-year-old dispute.
"We have worked very hard on this settlement, and as we have explained to our community members, there are a great many benefits from settling, primarily in increasing our land base." St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Chief Beverly Cook said in a statement at the time of the bill's passage.
New York and Franklin County have also reached an agreement on the long-standing issue of payments from the state to the county, according to tribes' report.
Under a June 2022 agreement, Franklin County and the towns of Bombay and Fort Covington each received $15 million from New York for the unrestricted use of the reservation land. New York also must pay $2 million annually to be split among the county and the towns for past services rendered.
"We anticipate that the memorandum of understanding among the plaintiffs, Franklin County and the state will be revised to reflect the recent understanding between the state and county on the payments issue, and to make other minor changes agreed to by the parties," the tribes said in the report.
The tribes are closer to finalizing an internal agreement governing the implementation of the settlement, according to the report, and a separate memorandum of understanding among the tribes, St. Lawrence County and the state are not yet final.
In addition, the tribes said they are considering final offers from the state and the New York Power Authority on certain issues but believe they have reached an agreement in principle.
"However, not all of the final offers were presented in writing, and so the plaintiffs are now drafting proposed settlement language to embody the agreement in principle, which they anticipate being able to share with the state in the near future," the tribes said.
Litigation in the decadeslong case came to a head in March 2022, when a federal district court ruled that New York's purchase of reservation lands in the 1800s violated the Nonintercourse Act. The court found that the state didn't follow six statutes of the act, which regulates commerce within tribal nations and clearly establishes rules for the purchase of tribal property.
The federal law specifies that only legislation by Congress can transfer title to a purchaser.
New York attempted to purchase approximately 2,000 acres of reservation land in 1824 and 1825 without the presence of a federal commissioner or any subsequent ratified federal act, the tribes alleged. The lands that make up the Hogansburg Triangle, situated at the center of the reservation near the Canadian border, were explicitly reserved for tribal use under the 1796 treaty ratified by Congress.
In a March 2021 bid for partial summary judgment, the tribes urged the court to find that the 1796 treaty that established their reservation had been continuously valid since its inception. The tribes cited the 2020 landmark McGirt v. Oklahoma ruling, which reaffirmed tribal sovereignty by saying that the boundaries of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation were never disassembled.
"To the extent the defendants contend that the unratified conveyances diminished the reservation, and they might show this through evidence other than congressional action, they are engaged in the very actions that the court in McGirt feared — a state encroaching on tribal rights and nullifying their interests despite Congress' supreme authority over reservation lands," the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe wrote in its filing.
Counsel for the tribes and New York could not immediately be reached for comment on Thursday.
The tribes are represented by Frank S. Holleman of Sonosky Chambers Sachse Endreson & Perry LLP, Michael L. Roy and Caroline P. Mayhew of Hobbs Straus Dean & Walker, Alexandra Page, Curtis G. Berkey and Jenna Macaulay of Berkey Willliams LLP
The United States is represented by James B. Cooney of the U.S. Justice Department's Environmental and Natural Resources Division.
New York is represented by its state attorney general's office.
The case is Canadian St. Regis et al. v. State of New York et al., case number 5:82-cv-00783, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York.