Wednesday June 14, 2006

Oneida Nation leader takes aim at critics

Ray Halbritter backs Nation's efforts at retaining sovereignty
By Lou Sorendo

    It was high time for a history lesson.

    Instead of rehashing the many economic benefits that the Oneida Nation has bestowed on the Mohawk Valley, Ray Halbritter, Oneida Indian Nation representative, took a different tack during his guest appearance at a Wednesday afternoon luncheon hosted by the Mohawk Valley Chamber of Commerce at the Radisson Hotel-Utica Centre.

    Halbritter, whose Oneida Nation is engaged in a bitter land claim battle, presented a historical picture of how supportive the Oneidas have been to not only the Mohawk Valley, but to the country itself.

    The Nation is seeking to have its land in Oneida and Madison counties put into federal trust, which would exempt it from state and local taxes and regulations.

    In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Nation could not longer exercise sovereignty over any of its reacquired lands.

    As a result of the ruling, the Nation has asked the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to take the Nation?s land into trust?which is a real estate transaction giving the federal government title to the land involved.

    Any land held in trust by the federal government will be for the use and benefit of the Oneida Nation and would no longer be subject to local taxes and regulations.

    The land-into-trust move has been met with criticism by local residents and politicians, and Halbritter took exception to that based on the many contributions the Oneida Nation has made in the region throughout history.

    Halbritter criticized government officials for waffling on the land trust issue, particularly since he had proof that they were in support of developments such as the Turning Stone Resort & Casino when it was constructed in 1993.

    Halbritter presented photos of Oneida County Executive Joseph Griffo attending a ribbon-cutting of Turning Stone. Halbritter said Griffo?along with a host of government representatives?knew the Oneida land was non-taxable at that time.

    ?Angry scar?

    Griffo has referred to the land trust as being capable of gouging an ?angry scar? through Oneida County.

    Halbritter said the land-into-trust approval is needed from the U.S. Department of Interior to protect the Nation's many business enterprises.

    The Nation employs more than 4,800 people.

    The Oneida Indian Nation is third among the top-10 employers in central New York, ranked only behind Cornell University in Ithaca and SUNY Upstate Medical University.

    To say the Oneida Nation has a positive economic impact on the Mohawk Valley is an understatement. In 2005, the Nation surpassed the 4,800 mark in job creation, making it the largest employer in Oneida and Madison counties. The Nation?s employees earned more than $109 million in wages, while the Nation paid another $16 million in health insurance and other benefits. The Oneida Nation also directed $285 million into other businesses around the region, the state and country.

    In addition, the Nation spent another $66 million in construction and capital improvements for the Turning Stone and other Nation enterprises.

    Historical view

    Halbritter cited treaties in which the U.S. government agreed to never make a claim to property owned by Indian nations, including the Oneidas.

    After the Revolutionary War, the U.S. promised the Oneidas that their reservation lands would always remain in the hands of the Oneida Nation.

    One-third of the Oneida population was killed in the Revolutionary War while backing the colonists.

    However, New York state ignored federal law and illegally acquired about 250,000 acres of Oneida land, according to Halbritter. The Oneida land claim is based on treaties with the U.S., federal law, and the U.S. Constitution. The Treaty of Canandaigua?created in 1794?was a formal acknowledgement by the U.S. government that lands were to be reserved for the Oneidas.

    ?You can?t take away the truth of history,? Halbritter said.

    The Oneida Nation leader said he is astounded about how little residents of the Mohawk Valley know about the history of their own region and the benefits gained from being affiliated with the tribe.

    Halbritter criticized the fact that the Destiny USA project in Syracuse received 30 years of property tax exemptions while the Oneida Nation is under scrutiny for not paying taxes.

    He would not elaborate on why he felt the two parties were being treated in different ways.