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Oneida Indian Nation
Oneida Indian Nation Seal
Total population
Regions with significant populations
Onyota'aka, English, other Iroquoian languages
Related ethnic groups
Other Oneida people, Seneca Nation, Onondaga Nation, Tuscarora Nation, Mohawk Nation, Cayuga Nation, other Iroquoian peoples

The Oneida Nation or Oneida Indian Nation (OIN) is a federally recognized tribe of Oneida people in the United States. The tribe is headquartered in New York, where the tribe originated and held its historic territory long before European colonialism. It is an Iroquoian-speaking people, and its early nation was one of the Five Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, or Haudenosaunee. Three other recognized Oneida tribes operate in locations where they migrated during and after the American Revolutionary War: one in Wisconsin in the United States, and two in Ontario, Canada.

Today the Oneida Indian Nation owns tribal land in Verona, Oneida, and Canastota, New York, on which it operates a number of businesses. These include a resort with a Class III gambling casino.

Since the late 20th century, the OIN has been a party to land claim suits against the state of New York for treaties and purchases made after the American Revolutionary War without ratification by the United States Senate, as required under the US Constitution. Litigation has been complex, related to trust lands, property, and collection of sales taxes. A landmark agreement entered into on May 16, 2013 resolved this and many other issues.

A controversy erupted in 2015 after the press reported that a planned casino is going to be named in honor of author L. Frank Baum, the author of the Wizard of Oz. They object to his having called for "the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians."


The tribal council of the Oneida Indian Nation has established the rules for citizenship: it requires documentation of at least 1/4 blood ancestry (equivalent to one grandparent) through the maternal line. The Oneida and other Iroquois nations have had a matrilineal kinship system, with descent and inheritance through the mother's line.



The Oneida Indian Nation has three active clans: the Turtle, Wolf, and Bear clans. Each Nation member belongs to one of these clans. Legend has it that clan names were selected in response to issues with the Haudenosaunee mourning process. Prior to clans being created, the entire Oneida village would mourn after the death of a village member. This caused problems as important decisions were put on hold during the time of mourning. Village leaders were at a loss as to how to continue everyday life while at the same time observing traditional mourning practices. A young village member approached the leaders with a possible solution. He suggested sending three female elders to the nearby river, having them build a fire, and spend the night. At first light the following morning the women were to pray to the Creator and take notice of the first animal that approached the river. Once the women had seen an animal, they were to report back to the village leaders. The elders put the young man’s plan into action. Three women were sent to the river. Upon their return one woman reported that she had seen a turtle at the edge of the river. The second woman reported seeing a wolf running along the river. The third woman stated that she had seen a bear feeding in the river along the rocks. Following the reports of the women, village leaders named the Oneida clans the Turtle, Wolf and Bear clans. They determined that a village member’s clan would be passed through the mother's line from generation to generation, as women have the Creator’s gift to create life. The Oneida Nation is still a matrilineal kinship society. After the clans were established, the people developed their practices for a mourning process. When there was a death in the village, the clan members of that person would mourn. The members of a second clan would console them, and the members of the third clan would carry on village business as usual.


The Haudenosaunee people are made up of several Nations. Among these nations are groups of people who form families called clans. While Nation members still have their immediate family of parents and siblings, they also have an extended family of fellow Clan members. As a matrilineal society, each clan member is linked to their clan by their mother. The three Oneida Nation Clans are named after animals, the turtle, wolf, and bear. Each animal is seen by Nation members as having certain positive characteristics or attributes. The turtle teaches patience, as well as the importance of never giving up. Turtles are also seen to be representative of strength and solidarity. They are thought to be old and wise, and are well respected. The wolf teaches the importance of using your ears, listening and being watchful. They embody a strong sense of family. Finally, the bear is seen as gentle and strong. Bears are seen as having strength in knowing that takes more strength not to raise your hand and strike, than to give into the impulse to strike.

Oneida land claim

Land claim litigation

In 1970 and 1974, the Oneida Indian Nation of New York, Oneida Nation of Wisconsin and the Oneida Nation of the Thames (Canada) filed lawsuits in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York; they alleged that the reservation land granted to them by a treaty between the Oneida Indian Nation of New York and New York State was taken from the Oneida people (from their historic territory) and the treaty was never ratified by the Senate, making it unconstitutional. The state did not have authority under the US Constitution to deal directly with the Indian nations. The Oneida said they still owned the lands in question.

In 1970, the Oneida filed a "test" case in federal court, suing Oneida and Madison counties for two years' rent (1968-1969) on county-owned acreage; the rent amounted to $16,694. They said that, as the original action by the state was unconstitutional, they still owned the land and were owed rent by the counties. The United States District Court for the Northern District of New York dismissed the action, and the Oneida appealed. On July 12, 1972, the Second Circuit United States Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s decision. The OIN petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to grant cert. In Oneida Indian Nation v. County of Oneida (1974), the Supreme Court decided in favor of the Oneida Indian Nation.

On July 12, 1977, on remand to the District Court with Judge Edmund Port presiding, the Court sided with the Oneida. The counties appealed to the Second Circuit, which affirmed Judge Port's decision. The counties had argued the OIN did not have standing for its claim, and the claim was too old and should not be considered. The counties petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for a writ of cert., which the court granted.

On March 4, 1985, the U.S. Supreme Court opined in favor of the Oneida in a 5 to 4 vote. The Court opined three principles"

  • that the Oneida had a common-law right to sue in federal courts;
  • that such claims were justiciable; and
  • there was no state or federal statute of limitations that would bar such claims. The majority opinion includes the following footnote:

"The question whether equitable considerations should limit the relief available to the present day Oneida Indians was not addressed by the Court of Appeals or presented to this Court by petitioners. Accordingly, we express no opinion as to whether other considerations may be relevant to the final disposition of this case should Congress not exercise its authority to resolve these far-reaching Indian claims."

Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in his dissent:

"This decision upsets long-settled expectations in the ownership of real property in the Counties of Oneida and Madison, New York, and the disruption it is sure to cause will confirm the common law wisdom that ancient claims are best left in repose. The Court, no doubt, believes that it is undoing a grave historical injustice, but in so doing it has caused another, which only Congress may now rectify."

In 1998, the United States Department of Justice intervened in the lawsuits on the plaintiff's behalf in order for the claim to proceed against New York State because the state asserted its immunity under the 11th Amendment. Based on City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation and Cayuga Indian Nation v New York'', the Defendants moved for summary judgment. On May 21, 2007, Judge Kahn dismissed the Oneida' possessory land claims and allowed the non-possessory claims to proceed.

Both parties appealed Judge Kahn's decision. In a decision dated August 9, 2010, the Second Circuit opined that the non-possessory claims could not proceed and remanded the case back to the district court to enter a judgement in favor of the State and Counties. The Oneida plan to appeal to the US Supreme Court.

Status of former tribal lands re-acquired on the open market

US Navy 061104-N-0000P-003 Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman, Navy Adm. Edmund Giambastiani speaks with attendees of the Oneida Indian Nation veterans recognition ceremony in Verona, N.Y
Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman, Navy Adm. Edmund Giambastiani speaks with attendees of the Oneida Indian Nation veterans recognition ceremony in Verona, N.Y, November 4, 2006

The Oneida Indian Nation has purchased lands which had been part of its historic reservation, as established by treaty with New York State, but which were later sold to the state and subsequently to non-Indians. For some time, the OIN and the state believed that the OIN's purchase of the land restored the property to its status as Indian Territory under Oneida possession.

State law prohibits Class III gaming facilities. The OIN developed its resort and casino on what was understood to be its federal reservation, where that action was authorized under tribal sovereignty.

The city of Sherrill challenged the OIN by trying to collect property taxes on the land the tribe bought in that jurisdiction, where it developed its casino. In City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation (2005), which went to the US Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg determined that the land the casino is on was part of the Oneida original tribal lands. But, she said that, although the land may be part of an ancient reservation land grant, as the Oneida Nation had not controlled it for more than 200 years, during which time it was non-Indian territory, the tribe could not re-establish its immunity (from state law) over those lands.

To "re-establish sovereign authority" over ancient tribal lands which the Oneida had re-acquired on the open market, the U.S. Supreme Court said that the "proper avenue" for the Oneida Indian Nation was through § 465 of the Indian Reorganization Act. It needed to apply to the Department of the Interior to place the disputed lands into federal trust.

Comments on the court decision varied. The issue in Sherrill was whether the city could levy property taxes on OIN's re-acquired tribal lands. The US Supreme Court determined that the City of Sherrill could levy property taxes. But the court failed to overturn the Second Circuit's finding that the land qualified as Indian Territory.

OIN supporters argue that Sherrill stands only to say that the OIN cannot re-instate its tax immunity, but that the land is Indian Land. UCE and its supporters disagreed; they counter that the Sherrill ruling provided a blanket approval for the jurisdictions to foreclose on all OIN property that owe back taxes. Some UCE members interpreted the ruling as making the OIN casino operation illegal under state law. They speculate that it should be closed until the state and the tribe reach a new agreement on gaming.

In April 2005, the Oneida Indian Nation applied to the Department of Interior to have this land taken into federal trust on its behalf. By letter dated June 10, 2005, Associate Deputy Secretary Cason advised Ray Halbritter, the tribe's lead on this issue, of its position:

"Department of Interior’s ("DOI") position with respect to certain issues related to the status of OIN lands ... we do not agree with [the] assertion that the Court’s ruling in Sherrill recognizes the continuation of restriction on alienation protections over recently re-acquired lands ... it is our opinion that Court in City of Sherrill unmistakably held that the lands at issue (property interests purchased by OIN on the open market) are subject to real property taxes. In the event these taxes are not paid, we believe such lands are subject to foreclosure. Further, please be advised that the BIA is in the process of taking appropriate action to clarify that its recordation of OIN deeds does not have the legal effect of designating these lands as restricted against alienation pursuant to 25 USC 177."

In order to accept the lands as federal trust property, the BIA had to prepare an environmental assessment of the action. On February 27, 2008, the BIA released its Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on taking the lands in question into trust on behalf of the Oneida. It recommended that 13,084 acres (52.95 km2) be placed into trust. After this announcement, the DOI gave a 30-day comment period and announced that it would have a decision on or after March 25, 2008.

Some government officials expressed concern about creating a "patchwork of taxable and tax-exempt properties," making a "jurisdictional nightmare." However, a recent sting operation conducted in conjunction with Oneida Nation Police and the Oneida County Sheriff disproves this argument.

In opposing the OIN's land-into-trust application, New York State raised the question of whether the Indian Reorganization Act applies to the OIN because the OIN had rejected reorganizing according to its rules, by a vote of 12 to 57 on June 17, 1936. According to the letter from Richard Platkin, Counsel to the Governor, to Franklin Keel, citing Michael T. Smith's Memorandum to Director, Office of Indian Services, Bureau of Indian Affairs, dated February 24, 1982, "the Oneida were considered not eligible, but in a reconsideration based on the discussion in the case of 'US v Boylan', the Department of Interior changed its position and conducted the referendum."

The OIN have noted that, as early as 1910, they have been a federally recognized tribe. The OIN is part of the original Oneida tribe that was party to the 1794 Treaty of Canadaigua. In unrelated cases involving other Indian Tribes and whether the IRA applied to them, the BIA issued a ruling that the fact a vote was taken by a tribe as to reorganizing under the IRA, was sufficient to establish that an Indian Tribe was under federal jurisdiction in 1934. A 1980 BIA memorandum determined that the phrase "recognized tribe now under federal jurisdiction" includes tribes that existed in 1934 and had a continuing course of dealing with the United State or some other legal obligation. To this day, the United States honors its legal obligations to the OIN under the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua.

On December 23, 2013, the BIA issued an amendment to its 2008 record of decision, accepting 13,082 acres into federal trust. In that amendment, the BIA unequivocally determined that the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 is applicable to the OIN not only by virtue of the vote held, but also by the Boylan litigation, the 1794 Treaty of Canadaigua, and the historical record. As noted below, New York State, and Oneida and Madison Counties have agreed to this decision's validity and discontinued any legal challenge, in perpetuity.

On March 2008, County Executive Anthony Picente held a public meeting to discuss the possibility of negotiating a settlement before the March 25 deadline. Congressman Arcuri tried to stall the decision by seeking to block such a settlement through legislation. While criticized by both sides for killing any progress made between the two sides, Arcuri said he wanted to encourage negotiations.

On January 2008, Halbritter sent a proposed settlement offer to the state and the county, but did not receive a response before DOI announced its decision. The OIN offered to negotiate an agreement pertaining to future trust applications, but the state and local governments have not responded.

On May 20, 2008, the DOI announced that it would take 13,004 acres (52.63 km2) into trust. The OIN offered to negotiate and settle the issues involved, while the state and county officials promised continued litigation.

On or about June 17, 2008, two groups filed separate lawsuits in federal court challenging the DOI's decision.; UCE's suit challenges the DOI's authority to take the land into trust under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, alleging that this trust decision violates the United States Constitution. The other group alleges that the DOI's decision was arbitrary and capricious because some of the trust land is subject to outstanding litigation between the group and the OIN.

On June 19, 2008 (the deadline to file suit), New York State, Oneida and Madison counties filed their suits in federal court. The state and county governments' arguments are similar to those of UCE. The opposing parties allege that the DOI's decision violates the United States constitution and that the DOI's decision was arbitrary.

By letter dated January 7, 2009, Steven Miskinis, Esq. of the U.S. Department of Justice notified the Court (in which the above-mentioned challenges to the May 20, 2008 determination are pending) that the U.S. has taken 18 acres (73,000 m2) of land known as the former United States Air Force Space Command Complex at the Verona Research Facility, Germany Road, Verona, New York into trust for the OIN. Two days later, the Assistant Attorney General for the State of New York objected to this action. He requested an expedited conference and asked that the United States voluntarily refrain from any further efforts to transfer land into trust for the Nation. Judge Kahn dismissed UCE's complaint, including the failed theory that the IRA is unconstitutional, on the basis of longstanding and settled law on this issue.

On May 16, 2013, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente, Madison County Board of Supervisors Chairman John Becker, and Oneida Indian Nation leader Ray Halbritter announced a deal that settles all of their differences. Before the deal is effective, the majority of each government's legislative branches must approve it. The most controversial issues that the deal resolves are as follows: 1. The Oneida will pay 25% of its profits from its new slot machines to the state; 2. The State agrees to allow a maximum of 25,000 acres to be placed into federal trust; 3. The Oneida will have exclusive gaming rights within a 10-county region; 4. All pending litigation will be withdrawn; and 5. The Oneida will charge its own sales tax on cigarettes and gas sales made to non-Indian purchasers. Of the 25% revenue that the state will receive, half will be given to Oneida and Madison counties.

Washington Redskins

In 2013, the OIN renewed a campaign to compel the Washington Redskins to change their team name and mascot. The OIN leader Halbritter launched the website "Change the Mascot." In 2014-2015 new publicity related to this national campaign, with other Native American tribes participating.


The Oneida Indian Nation has both internal and external opposition. Internally, members of the Wolf Clan in particular protest Halbritter's assumption of power and dissolving of the traditional Oneida government.

Internal governance issues

Shenandoah v. United States DOI, 159 F.3d 708, (2d Cir. 1998) was a lawsuit that challenged the legitimacy and authority of Ray Halbritter to act on behalf of the Oneida Indian Nation of New York. Specifically,

"In 1977, members of the Oneida Nation appointed Halbritter and two other Nation members as interim representatives of the Nation. On April 25, 1993, the Grand Council, consisting of representatives from all six Iroquois nations, including the Oneida Nation, purported to remove Halbritter from his position as interim Nation representative. The Department [of Interior] acknowledged the removal on August 10, 1993, but the next day stayed its acknowledgment pending BIA review. After requesting the Nation to conduct a referendum to select a representative, the Department agreed to Halbritter's proposal to submit "statements of support" from Nation members. On February 4, 1994, the Department notified Halbritter that it would continue to recognize him as the Nation's permanent representative until such time as he resigned or was removed by the Nation in accordance with certain procedures. According to plaintiffs, on May 21, 1995, the Nation once again removed Halbritter from his position as Oneida representative. Although informed of Halbritter's alleged second removal, the Department had not acted upon that notification by the time of oral argument, and as of the time of this opinion, we have received no information to the contrary."

The district court granted the defendants' motions to dismiss both the non-habeas and habeas claims of the plaintiffs. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of the district court.

External issues

External opposition comes from groups including the Upstate Citizens for Equality (UCE), a group that opposes Haudenosaunee land claims in upstate New York. It also opposes the Oneida Nation being able to operate its enterprises tax-free on land for which there is a question of sovereignty.

Tax issues

The Oneida Indian Nation and other parties believed operations on property it controlled were tax free. City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation, 544 US 197 (2005).

The Oneida Indian Nation has asserted that it made up for this lack of land tax by donating to local schools in amounts that exceed the taxes which the county would normally receive from the land plots, in a program known as the Silver Covenant Chain Education Grants. In recent years, due to the increased tensions between the local governments, the state government, and the Oneida Indian Nation, it has decreased or stopped the donations.

Stockbridge Valley School has several Oneida Indian children students, but the Nation has discontinued grants to the school because it disapproves of the views of one teacher. In late fall 2003, a representative of the Nation contacted the Stockbridge Valley Community School District and advised that it would not make the Silver Covenant unless a particular teaching assistant was fired.

Cayuga Indian Nation of New York v Gould, 14 NY3d 614 [2010] is a case brought on the issue of whether federally recognized Indian Tribes, such as the Oneida, have to collect state sales taxes from retail sales to non-Indian consumers made within their reservation. According to the Court of Appeals in Gould, the Indian Tribe is not subject to State tax law. For purposes of the State Tax Law, the Nation's retail operations on its lands, even if reacquired on the open market, are not subject to state tax law.

"Yellow Brick Road" Casino

In June 2015, the OIN opened a casino based on themes from the popular book and film, The Wizard of Oz, indirectly honoring L. Frank Baum. This choice has been criticized by other Native Americans, as Baum was noted for supporting genocide against the Sioux Nation. The Washington Post noted that their choice was a problem, as the Oneida have led the effort to force the Washington Redskins to change their name by dropping the derogatory reference to Native Americans.

Baum's editorials can be read at the University of Oxford's website.

Potential pact between Oneida County and the Oneida

On May 8, 2009, Anthony Picente, Oneida County Executive, announced a pact between Oneida County and the Oneida Indian Nation. The Oneida County Board of Legislators and the State legislature must approve this pact within the next 60 days. If this pact is approved, the Oneida would pay $55 million to Oneida County over the next 10 years, beginning with a $30 million lump sum payment this year. Additionally, the Oneida would make Silver Covenant Grants for the next five years, in order to apply for more trust land without county opposition. In return for this, the county agrees to drop its lawsuits and satisfy all pending tax lien and tax foreclosure proceedings. The Oneida agree to impose a sales tax on all businesses situated on Oneida Indian Nation lands that is equal to Oneida County's sales tax rate. This Nation sales tax will be imposed on all non-Indian patrons as well as tribal members.

The pact would require the Oneida County Sheriff and the Oneida Indian Nation Police Department to negotiate a law enforcement pact to settle questions of jurisdictional authority and operations On May 27, 2009, the County Board of Legislators rejected the proposed pact, citing many reasons for rejecting the proposed agreement.

Landmark agreement between the Oneida and state and local government

On May 16, 2013, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the Oneida Indian Nation reached a settlement agreement between the state, and Oneida and Madison Counties. The agreement resolved multiple legal issues between the parties. Pursuant to the agreement, the Oneidas would pay 25% of its revenue to the State, a quarter of which is paid to Oneida County. These monies are to offset any property and sales taxes the Counties would otherwise receive if the property remained on the tax rolls. The State and Madison and Oneida Counties agree to withdraw their objections to the OIN's land-trust application, with a cap of 25,000 acres that can be transferred. The Oneidas will have a 10-county (Oneida, Madison, Onondaga, Cayuga, Herkmimer, Oswego, Cortland, Chenango, Otsego County, and Lewis counties) geographic gambling monopoly. The OIN will implement a sales tax system to tax products sold to non-Indians on Indian Territory, such as cigarettes. And the agreement would terminate all related litigation between the OIN, the state, and Madison and Oneida Counties. This agreement required the State Legislature, the Oneida County and Madison County Boards of Legislators, the US Department of the Interior, and the Judiciary to ratify this agreement.

On May 28, 2013, the Oneida County Board of Legilators approved the agreement in a 16-13 vote. On May 29, 2013, New York State, through Governor Cuomo, signed the agreement. On May 30, 2013, the Madison County Board of Supervisors approved the agreement in a weighted vote of 847-653. On January 1, 2014, the US Department of the Interior approved of the agreement. On June 22, 2013, both the state Senate (48-11) and the state Assembly (83-44) approved the agreement. The final entity to approve the agreement was the Judiciary. On March 4, 2014, US District Court Judge Kahn approved the settlement agreement. On September 4, 2014, the 13000 acres of OIN real property was formally transferred into US trust.

On August 19, 2013, the Towns of Vernon and Verona jointly filed a lawsuit to oppose the ratified settlement, citing a violation of their freedom of speech and equal protection. On October 30, 2013, US District Court Judge Kahn remanded the lawsuit to the state court system because the towns lacked standing. On June 27, 2014, Albany County Supreme Court denied and dismissed the lawsuit.

On May 27, 2014 the Sherill City Commission voted 3-1 to accept $160,000 annually from Oneida County, in exchange for the current commission and future commissions waiving their right to challenge the settlement. On May 29, 2014, the Vernon Village Board unanimously agreed to receive annual payments of $60,000 from Oneida County in exchange for the current board and future boards waiving their right to challenge the settlement. On June 7, 2014, the Town of Augusta accepted an agreement with Oneida County. By a 3-1 vote, the town will receive $107,500 a year as compensation for lost property tax revenue based on OIN trust lands.

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