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Hobart’s attempt to show Reservation diminishment fails


Oneida Nation photo

The Oneida Business Committee continues to stand together to protect the Oneida Nation’s sovereignty. Clockwise from top: Councilman Ernest Stevens III, Councilman Kirby Metoxen, Secretary Lisa Summers, Vice Chairman Brandon Stevens, Chairman Tehassi Hill, Treasurer Trish King, Councilwoman Jennifer Webster, and Councilman David Jordan.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh District has reversed District Court Judge William Griesbach’s May 2019 ruling that the Oneida Nation Reservation has been diminished. Hobart, which sits entirely within the undiminished Oneida Nation Reservation boundaries, attempted to cite the Nation for $5,000 after trying to impose a Special Event Ordinance pertaining to the 2016 Big Apple Fest and a fee onto the tribe. Hobart argued the Nation was required to abide by their ordinance since the Reservation had been diminished to the point that parts of Big Apple Fest took place in their jurisdiction. The Nation, knowing Hobart has no legal standing to impose anything on the tribe, refused to acknowledge any forms, fees, or Hobart ordinances as Big Apple Fest takes place entirely on reservation land. On July 30, 2020, the United States Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Oneida Nation on all issues pertaining to the case.

In his since-reversed 2019 ruling against the Nation, Judge Griesbach disregarded Supreme Court cases holding that an Indian reservation may only be diminished by an act of Congress which clearly expresses the intent to do so, and that allotment of an Indian Reservation and the subsequent acquisition of reservation land by non-Indians does not diminish a reservation. Judge Griesbach also failed to apply the federal statutory definition of Indian Country which specifically acknowledges that all land within a reservation is Indian Country “notwithstanding the issuance of any patent.”

“The court held that the Oneida Reservation was created by the 1838 Treaty with the Oneida, and the United States Congress has never acted to disestablish or diminish the Oneida Reservation,” James Bittorf, Deputy Chief Counsel for the Oneida Nation, said. “Accordingly, all land within the Reservation is Indian Country, and the Village of Hobart lacks jurisdiction over the Nation within the Reservation. In reaching this conclusion, the court noted that the United States Supreme Court has time and time again rejected the Village’s legal theory, and found that the Village’s evidence was so inconclusive that it could not support a finding that Congress intended to abrogate the 1838 Treaty.”

“We have been vindicated with the Court of Appeals ruling in favor of the Oneida Nation,” Oneida Nation Chairman Tehassi Hill said. “It is important for Oneida Nation citizens to educate themselves on our laws and authority as a sovereign government. The Oneida Nation Business Committee remains dedicated to the principles that it and its members are subject to federal and tribal regulations within our undiminished Reservation boundaries.

“This ruling substantiates what we’ve asserted all along,” Hill said. “The Oneida Nation appreciates the support of the federal government and the State of Wisconsin. Oneida has long asserted our sovereignty and exercised it to protect our people, our land, and our government. We are vindicated by this ruling and we look forward to the future with continued governance of our land within our community. Business will move forward as usual although we’ve been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re now more confident with how we govern our affairs without the threat of Hobart’s litigations.

Hobart’s continued refusal to acknowledge the Oneida Nation’s government doesn’t change the fact that the Nation, its Reservation, and its laws exist. “This was a very important case,” Hill said. “Tribal governments are not special interest groups. These are actual governments represented through treaty agreements between the United States and hundreds of sovereign tribal nations across the country. 

Hobart has 150 days from the date of the decision to seek a review by the United States Supreme Court. Their municipality has spent a substantial amount of its taxpayers’ dollars on unsuccessful litigation against the Oneida Nation across the years.