The Indian Law Resource Center has been working for over 30 years to help the Mohawk Nation reclaim thousands of acres of land that is rightfully theirs.
Nearly 200 years ago, the homelands of the Mohawk Nation were illegally taken from them by the State of New York, and the people were relegated to a remote reservation of only a few square miles on the St. Lawrence River. New York State had stolen approximately 7,000 acres reserved to the Mohawks by federal treaty, taken in violation of federal law – the Federal Trade and Intercourse Act. After many years of court battles, negotiations, and at times, intense conflict, the Mohawk community decided it had little choice but to initiate a lawsuit in federal court for the return of their lands.
The Center helped the Mohawk Nation file a class-action case in the late 1980s, and we continue to this day to represent them in major federal litigation to resolve their land rights. Our client is the traditional Haudenosaunee government of the Mohawk Nation.
The goal of this land rights litigation is to secure a measure of justice for the Mohawk Nation, including the return of lands near the Canadian border that includes many islands in the St. Lawrence River. We want to begin to overturn more than a century of legal rulings that are racially discriminatory and thus opposed to the principle of equality before the law.
In 2005, we reached a historic negotiated settlement of the case, and a bill to implement the settlement passed the New York State Assembly. Unfortunately, adverse decisions in other court cases, the Cayuga case and the Sherrill case, caused some of the defendants to withdraw their support for the settlement agreement. We returned to court in 2006 and 2007 to defeat the motions filed by the defendants to dismiss the case. To do so, we called upon experts in history, law, demographics, and real estate appraisal, and documented exhaustively the Mohawks’ history of protesting the taking of their lands and of their continuing presence in the land claim area.
On July 8, 2013, Judge Kahn of the federal district court in Albany upheld the Mohawk claim to approximately 2,000 acres of land near Hogansburg, New York. The court also upheld the Mohawk claim that Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation unlawfully acquired a right of way for a power line across the Akwesasne Mohawk Reservation in 1948. The Reservation is near Hogansburg and the U.S-Canada border. Judge Kahn rejected arguments that the Mohawks waited too long to make these claims and that the claims disrupt the expectations of the non-Indian landowners.
The U.S. Supreme Court decided in City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation in 2005 that an Oneida Nation suit must be dismissed because the Court said the Oneida Nation had waited too long to file suit and the suit would disrupt the expectations of others in the area. Major land claims by other Indian nations in New York were later dismissed on the same reasoning. This is the first claim case since the Supreme Court’s decision in City of Sherrill that has not been dismissed. Though Judge Kahn’s decision will almost certainly be appealed, the decision brings the Mohawks one step closer to achieving a fair and just resolution of their land claims.