Amid the scourge of COVID-19, the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin has cause to celebrate as it claims sovereignty over land lost for generations.
The Oneida Nation fought alongside the colonists during the Revolutionary War. Oneidas even fed George Washington’s starving troops at Valley Forge. Their reward? After the Revolution they were pushed off more than 5 million acres of their ancestral lands by the newly created state of New York.
To escape pressure from white settlers, many Oneidas relocated to Wisconsin, where the federal government granted them a 65,000-acre reservation. But even that was whittled away in land “deals,” and before long the Oneida possessed just a few thousand acres.
It was “devastating” to lose their lands, said Barbara Webster, public relations director for the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. “To introduce the concept of carving these precious resources for ownership took generations of Native American to comprehend. Unfortunately, for those who lost lands it may have been too late,” Webster told WhoWhatWhy.
But now, like many Indigenous nations across the country, the Oneidas are finding success in reclaiming their rightful control over their historic territories. Using casino revenue and favorable court rulings, the Oneida Nation is on track to reclaim some 75 percent of the reservation.
On March 4, the city of Green Bay agreed to stop standing in the way of allowing the Oneida Nation to buy back lands and place them within a federal land trust that isn’t subject to local taxes. In exchange, the Oneidas agreed to pay the city for infrastructure improvements. Roughly 14 percent of Green Bay lies within the borders of the reservation.
“The basis of the Oneida Nation is our sovereignty and that includes our lands,” Oneida Nation Chairman Tehassi Hill told WhoWhatWhy.” We established our homelands here in Wisconsin and it is confirmed by an 1838 Treaty with the United States. Much of our original reservation was lost through various means, and it has always been our goal to recover our lands.”
The validity of the 1838 Treaty with the Oneida was upheld last summer by a federal appeals court. “The Oneida Reservation defined by the 1838 Treaty remains intact, so the land within the boundaries of the Reservation is Indian country under (the law),” the court ruled.
The new deal marks a dramatic change in relations between the Oneida Nation and Green Bay, which in 2015 prevented the tribe from placing their land in a trust.
According to Green Bay Alderperson Barbara Dorff, who voted in favor of the deal last week, the city’s stance had been shifting in favor of working with the Oneida Nation since the election of Mayor Eric Genrich and a new city council in 2019.
“I’m not gonna say that we’re completely progressive, usually six or seven of us manage to be out of a council of 12. We are tending toward a kinder, gentler Council at this point,” Dorff explained. “Many of us have the fervent belief that the Oneida have a right to take their land back in trust and we should not be objecting to this. We know we have to provide services, whether they pay us or not.”
Council members had argued in 2015 that Green Bay would lose millions of dollars in tax revenue if a trust were created. The Oneida proposal also fell through as a result of lobbying by the Village of Hobart, a community of roughly 10,000 located in the Green Bay metropolitan area.
Hobart and the Oneida Nation have long had tense relations. The village is located entirely within the boundaries of the Oneida Reservation, according to the 19th century treaty. However, Hobart — which was only incorporated as a village in 2002 — argued in court the treaty that established the Oneida Reservation had become defunct.
“The village embraced discredited legal theories and began misrepresenting the Nation’s history to argue that the Oneida reservation had been disestablished and the Nation itself had ceased to exist,” Hill told the Green Bay Press-Gazette in December.
The same Press-Gazette article reported that the Village of Hobart had spent more than $1 million dollars in court fees battling the Oneida Nation since 2011, many for cases which the village ended up losing.
In 2008, the Oneida Nation purchased a 320-acre golf course in Hobart. The village sued, stating that they feared the tribe would place the land in a nontaxable federal trust. A federal judge ruled the Oneida Nation could buy the land but would have to honor restrictions placed upon the land by Hobart, including paying taxes on the property and not placing the land in a trust.
Two years later, however, a federal judge ruled in favor of the Oneida Nation when Hobart denied the tribe a liquor license for the golf course, claiming the tribe owed $100,000 in stormwater fees. The tribe stated that the outstanding fees were left unpaid by the previous owner of the golf course.
At the time of these disputes, Hobart’s director of community development and tribal affairs, who subsequently served as village administrator, was Elaine Willman. From 2001 until 2007, Willman was the national chair of the Citizens Equal Rights Alliance (CERA), on whose board she continues to serve. The Southern Poverty Law Center describes CERA, a nonprofit that seeks to end tribal governments, as “arguably the most important anti-Indian group in the nation.”
Even after Willman’s tenure in Hobart’s government ended, the village and the Oneida Nation continued to clash. In 2016, Hobart sued the Oneida Nation over the tribe’s plans to hold their Big Apple Fest on nontrust, Oneida-owned land within the village limits. Hobart insisted the tribe needed a permit from the village.
While an appeals court first ruled in favor of Hobart, it reversed the decision last summer following the US Supreme Court’s ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma, which reaffirmed the sovereignty of the Muscogee tribe over lands set aside to them in the 19th century. The ruling held that half of Oklahoma belongs to the state’s Native American tribes and had broad ramifications for other cases relating to tribal sovereignty throughout the country.
“Our legal [counsel] did bring that [case] up and it did reaffirm those land treaties,” Dorff said. “That was an important piece” of the city’s vote.
Although the previous deal had partly fallen through due to pressure by Hobart, Green Bay isn’t too worried about their relationship with the village going forward. “I think our relationship with the Oneida is way more important now than our relationship with Hobart,” Dorff explained, citing the significant chunk of Green Bay within reservation borders.
“We hope this [deal] is viewed as a decision that has far-reaching benefits to our greater community and we hope it sets the standard for intergovernmental relations,” Hill told WhoWhatWhy.
Dorff agrees. “I think that our relationship is just going to continue to improve,” she said. “We haven’t ever had such a good relationship.”