Department of Justice Seal


FRIDAY, MARCH 20, 1998 (202) 514-2008

TDD (202) 514-1888



WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Justice Department today intervened in an existing federal lawsuit brought by the Seneca Nation and the Tonawanda Band of Senecas over Indian land, including Grand Island, in Allegheny County, New York. The lawsuit alleges that in the nineteenth century, New York State illegally obtained land that belongs to the Seneca Nation.

"The Seneca Nation has an historical and federally protected interest in this land," said Lois Schiffer, Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Justice Department's Environment Division. "New York State violated federal law when it purchased the land without Congressional approval in the early nineteenth century. It is time to right this wrong."

According to the Department's papers filed today in U.S. District Court in Buffalo, New York State tried to buy land from the Senecas in 1815, without the consent of the United States Congress. A 1790 federal statute prohibits the purchase of land from Indian tribes without Congressional consent.

The federal government's intervention will prevent the state from successfully arguing that it should be dismissed from the cases due to a June 1997 U.S. Supreme Court ruling which held that Indian tribes may not bring land claims against state officials. However, this ruling does not apply to the federal government, which may sue states in federal court. Federal intervention will ensure that the court can hear the merits of the case, and that the state, which improperly purchased the land, remains accountable for its action.

The Senecas' suit, originally filed in 1993 in U.S. District Court in Buffalo, involves a claim for approximately 18 Niagara River islands totaling approximately 18,000 acres, of which Grand Island is by far the largest. The United States is not joining in another claim in the Senecas' suit, in which the Seneca Nation asserts that a 300 acre easement for Interstate 90 across the Cattaraugus Reservation near Buffalo is not valid because it was not approved by Congress.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said, "Although we are intervening and are willing to litigate the case, we are also willing to engage in serious settlement discussions with the state and the Senecas."

Similar Indian land claims in other states have been resolved through negotiation. In those claims, the tribes, the state, and the federal government have reached agreements that have compensated tribes and eliminated questions about the land title of present-day owners. In some of these settlements, tribes bought land from willing sellers to create or expand a reservation.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that no time limitation applies to this type of Indian land claim.