U.S. Appeals Court Confirms Oneida Reservation Boundaries

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit’s ruling on July 30th reaffirmed the boundaries of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. Chairman Tehassi Tasi Hill stated, “The Oneida Nation appreciates the support from the Federal Government, the State of Wisconsin, and the National Congress of American Indians and Indian Land Tenure Foundation for their filing of amicus curiae briefs in this case.” 

“The reservation was created by treaty and it can be diminished or disestablished only by Congress,” 7th Circuit Judge David Hamilton wrote in the decision released Thursday. “Congress has not done either of those things.” 

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit recently overturned a lower court’s ruling that had sided with the Village of Hobart, Wisconsin. At face-value, the lawsuit concerned whether the Tribe needed a permit for its annual Big Apple Fest, but the underlying issue was Tribal sovereignty and the Oneida Nation’s right to jurisdiction and ordinance of on-reservation activities. 

On July 30th, following in the footsteps of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision reaffirming the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s reservation boundaries in McGirt v. Oklahoma, the Seventh Circuit court reversed the lower court’s decision, holding that: 

“The Oneida Reservation defined by the 1838 Treaty remains intact, so the land within the boundaries of the Reservation is Indian country under 18 U.S.C. § 1151(a).” 

Significantly, the victory for the Oneida Nation also serves to maintain legal stability and protect more than 100 Tribes with similar land allotments, the Native American Rights Fund stated. 

Oneida Nation press conference

In 2009, the Oneida Nation started hosting its Big Apple Fest complete with apple picking, an apple pie contest and other events drawing more than 8,000 visitors, reported the Green Bay Press Gazette. The Village of Hobart insisted the Tribe seek a permit for the event, and without legal purview, issued citations and imposed fines on Tribal officials, despite the fact that the festival took place on Tribal lands. 

The Tribe sued the Village, seeking an injunction and a declaration that the Village could not enforce its regulations within the Tribe’s reservation. In response, the Village alleged that allotment either disestablished or diminished the Oneida reservation.

While the federal district court held that the Oneida reservation was not disestablished, it did conclude that the reservation was diminished either by the vesting of fee title of allotments to Indians, or the subsequent conveyance of those allotments to non-Indians. Additionally, the lower court relied on a broad (and incorrect) understanding that Congress intended that the General Allotment Act would diminish reservation, NARF underscored. These were drastic departures from established law, which today’s decision corrected. Courts—including the US Supreme Court just weeks ago—have consistently held that the ownership status of individual land parcels has no bearing on whether reservation boundaries have changed.

As Chairman Tehassi Hill stated during the Oneida press conference:

“Oneida has long asserted our sovereignty and exercised it to protect our people, our lands and our government.  We are vindicated by this ruling today and we look toward the future of continual governance on our lands and in our community. Business will move forward as usual, although we all have been negatively impacted by the COVID pandemic, we are now more confident in how we govern our affairs without the threat of Hobart’s continual litigation.”