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Land claims decision drawing mixed reaction

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HOGANSBURG — Although the decades-old Indian land claim lawsuit still grinds on, U.S. Magistrate Judge Therese Wiley Dancks recently issued a recommendation that the ruling judge uphold the claim to the so-called Bombay Triangle and dismiss claims to pieces of the towns of Fort Covington and Massena, as well as Barnhart, Croil and Long Sault islands.

Local leaders have expressed various sentiments to the decision, ranging from agreement with Judge Dancks’ recommendation to downright disappointment.

St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Chief Ron LaFrance said he has mixed feelings about the decision.

“The decision not to dismiss the Hogansburg Triangle is a good one,” he said. “We always felt it was part of Akwesasne and we didn’t treat it differently.”

The Hogansburg Triangle, which is also referred to by some as the Bombay or Akwesasne Triangle, is a piece of land with triangular-shaped borders that was part of the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation as laid out under the Seven Nations of Canada Treaty of 1796.

The Mohawks allege in the land-claim lawsuit it was bought back by New York state in violation of the act.

In addition to legal bills, the land-claim suit is costing Franklin County tax dollars because 108 parcels in the triangle area have not had taxes paid on them in years.

Their Mohawk owners believe they are on Indian land, exempt to all but federal taxes.

Franklin County Treasurer Bryon Varin said the county has taken title to 76 of them, pending the case’s outcome. He added the total value of unpaid taxes on the 108 parcels is about $7,121,958.

He would not comment further, citing the ongoing litigation.

Franklin County Legislator Tim Smith, D-Fort Covington, who represents Fort Covington and the affected area of Bombay, declined to comment on the case.

“It wouldn’t make much difference if I did or I didn’t,” Mr. Smith said. “I don’t want to hinder negotiations for the Native Americans or the settlement side.”

Judge Dancks recommended upholding the Bombay Triangle claim on grounds that it has a higher Native American population than the other areas being sued over, which include large pieces in both the town and village of Massena and the town of Fort Covington.

Although court documents state the Mohawks seek “injunctive relief ejecting the defendants and members of the defendant class from the subject land,” Mr. LaFrance said no property owners will be evicted if the land goes back to the tribe.

“We have no intention of ejecting anybody. That’s never been part of our intentions,” he said. “It’s just legal language. I have no idea how or why it’s in there.”

Mr. LaFrance also said if the Bombay Triangle is granted to the tribe, those living there will not see major changes.

“We exercise jurisdiction of that area, and we won’t treat people differently than we have for the last hundred-some years,” he said. “I don’t believe anything would change.”

Mr. LaFrance said he doesn’t entirely disagree with dismissal of the claims to areas of Massena; there are very few Natives and no Native businesses in the area.

Massena Town Supervisor Joseph D. Gray, a former public relations official for the tribal council, said he is hoping for a resolution to a case that has dragged on since 1982.

“If this portion of the land claim is dismissed by the court, I think it would lift something of a shadow that’s been over this part of Massena,” he said. “It was good business on behalf of the tribe to pursue the claim.”

Mr. Gray echoed Judge Dancks’ recommendation in that partial dismissal is called for simply on the grounds that it has been almost two centuries since the land left Mohawk hands.

“The transactions that happened in the late 1700s or early 1800s were done in good faith,” Mr. Gray said. “They were willing to sell them.”

Although Massena has few or no Native businesses, Mr. Gray acknowledged the tribe provides a much-needed source of employment in the area and feels municipalities should look to them as an ally rather than an adversary.

“We have some areas of competing interest. The land claim is one of those. We have more areas of common interest,” Mr. Gray said. “The casino is a huge employer in our area, there is a significant number of non-Natives working.”

Mr. LaFrance said with regard to the Fort Covington claim, he is disappointed the judge believes dismissal is the proper path.

He believes there is a distinctive Native element to the community and noted there are two successful Native-owned businesses there, Twin Leaf and East End Convenience.

The next phase for the land claim case is for a senior federal judge to make a ruling, which the tribe said in an Oct. 1 released statement could take up to six months.

Bombay Town Supervisor Mary Taylor and Fort Covington Town Supervisor Pat Manchester did not respond to requests for comment.

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