Election Section

Judge dismisses NY tribe’s claim of ownership of Grand Island

The Associated Press
Saturday June 22, 2002

BUFFALO, N.Y. — A federal judge Friday threw out the Seneca Indian Nation’s claim of ownership of Grand Island and other islands in the Niagara River near Buffalo. 

The long-awaited ruling dismisses a 9-year-old lawsuit that residents of Grand Island, a suburb of Buffalo, have long claimed has damaged business and property values. 

The Senecas were expected to appeal. The tribe has about 7,000 members, about half of whom live on two reservations in western New York. 

U.S. District Judge Richard Arcara’s 215-page decision said the Seneca Nation did not own the islands when it sold them to New York in 1815, even though the Indian nation believed it did as a result of a 1794 treaty. 

The state actually owned the islands but agreed to pay $12,000 for them to avoid conflict, wrote Arcara, citing historical documents. 

The tribe sought the return of the islands in a 1993 lawsuit, claiming New York’s purchase of them was not valid because it was not approved by Congress as required by a 1790 act. 

Friday’s ruling lifts fears of eviction and general uncertainty felt by residents and property owners on Grand Island, by far the largest of the disputed islands, Grand Island Town Supervisor Peter McMahon said. The island is home to about 18,000 people. 

“There are economic impacts, both in terms of housing and small business,” he said. “Both have suffered because of the negative impacts of the land claim.” 

Anticipating an appeal, both McMahon and attorney Michael Powers, hired by Gov. George Pataki to represent Grand Island, said they were confident the decision would stand. 

Arcara “spent an extraordinary amount of time and gave everyone full and complete opportunities for oral arguments and briefing, and he and his staff worked as hard as I’ve ever seen a judge and staff work on a case,” Powers said. 

“We’re confident the decision is very well-reasoned and sound,” he said.