The following is a guest post by Amanda Buettner, a remote intern in the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress, and co-authored by Jennifer Davis.
“Great nations, like great men, should keep their word.”
Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black expressed his disappointment with these words in 1956, when he wrote the words in his dissent in the case, Federal Power Commission v. the Tuscarora Indian Nation (362 U.S. 99). The case was brought before the Supreme Court to rule on claims over land to which both the U.S. government and the Tuscarora Nation had asserted ownership. While the court sided with the Federal Power Commission (FPC), this case marked a significant moment in Indigenous and federal law interactions. The Federal Power Commission v. Tuscarora Indian Nation ruling became the spark for subsequent landmark cases in the 250-year history of land negotiations between the U.S. government and sovereign Indigenous governments.
Federal Power Commission v. Tuscarora Indian Nation
On June 7, 1956, disaster struck at Niagara Falls, New York. The Schoellkopf Power Station, which brought over 400,000 kilowatts of power to the region, was destroyed by rockslides leaving only one of the three sections of the plant intact. The New York State Power Authority decided to completely destroy the Schoellkopf Station, and build in its place a new, larger power station. Congress issued an emergency act on August 21st, 1957 Public Law 85-159 (71 Stat. 401), which authorized the Niagara Power Project to begin. With Robert Moses in charge as the head of the New York Power Authority, work started to acquire the land for the massive hydroelectric power station.
However, this work came to a halt due to a land dispute. Land that the Tuscarora Indian Nation bought in 1804 was claimed by the U.S. government under eminent domain, in order to build part of the new plant on part of the Tuscarora land. The New York Power Authority wanted to take 1,350 acres of land, with compensation to be given to the Tuscarora. The Tuscarora Nation disputed this plan, arguing that NYPA did not possess “the authority to acquire them [the acres of land]. (362 U.S. 99, 100)”. As stated by the case ruling, “The FPC took this fight to the Supreme Court, who on March 7th, 1960, sided with the FPC, giving them 550 acres of Tuscarora land for the project. The majority opinion found that, “… the federal eminent domain powers conferred by Congress upon the Commission’s licensee, by § 21 of the Federal Power Act, to take such of the lands of the Tuscarora as are needed for the Niagara project do not breach the faith of the United States, or any treaty or other contractual agreement of the United States with the Tuscarora Indian Nation.”
Oneida Indian Nation of New York v. County of Oneida, New York
While the Tuscarora lost their case, their invocation of the Nonintercourse Act (25 U.S.C. § 177) helped lay the ground for broad interpretation of the statutes. The Nonintercourse statutes were published in a series of six statutes dating from 1790 to 1834; the first four acts expired after four years but the 1802 and 1834 acts remained in force. These statutes instructed U.S. law on how to properly execute land transfers with sovereign Indigenous nations. The acts state that land transfers between sovereign Indigenous nations and other parties must have explicit permission from Congress or the federal government of the U.S., otherwise they are illegal.
The FPC v. Tuscarora opinion itself did not make major changes to native-federal law interactions. Still, the opinion provided a greater understanding of how the Nonintercourse Act could be used to reclaim Indigenous tribal land (Shattuck, p. 21). George C. Shattuck was an attorney for the firm BS&K in Syracuse. Jacob Thompson, then President of the Oneida Nation of New York, approached the firm wanting to fight for compensation of Oneida land lost in illegal deals made by New York State. The plaintiffs argued the deals were made in violation of the Nonintercourse Act. The Tuscarora case had made clear that New York was bound to federal laws that protected native land, and was not exempt from the Nonintercourse Act.
For Shattuck and the Oneida, the key issue of their new case would be proving that New York made the original land deals without permission from the federal government, thus violating the Nonintercourse Act and entitling the Oneidas to fair rental value for compensation. The courts thought so as well. In 1974, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Oneida Indian Nation in Oneida Indian Nation v. County of Oneida. The Supreme Court also cited Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion in Worcester v. Georgia, when Marshall wrote, “the universal conviction that the Indian nations possessed a full right to the lands they occupied until that right should be extinguished by the United States with their consent” to support their decision on the case. Now referred to as Oneida I, the successful case set off a wave of lawsuits attempting similar compensation or reclamation by Indigenous nations.
The County of Oneida v. Oneida Indian Nation
The most successful of these suits was County of Oneida v. Oneida Indian Nation, which affirmed the validity of Oneida claims despite objections brought by local government in New York. In March 1985, the Court decided that, indeed, the Oneida Nation could bring this centuries-old action of a land transfer into question for the Oneida’s claim to their land, and the Court sided with the Oneida Indian Nation.
While FPC v. Tuscarora wasn’t a watershed case for Indigenous land claims in American history, its existence helped to bring to life the later lawsuits in the 1970s and 1980s of the Oneida Indian Nation (414 U.S.661 and 470 U.S. 226). Those later cases were some of the few to grant rulings in favor of Indigenous nations’ land claims in federal law proceedings.
KIF191 .S53 1991 Shattuck, George C. The Oneida land claims: a legal history.
Kurt Carroll. Treaty of Canandaigua 1794. IALL Blog, November 30, 2020. Accessed July 15, 2022.
Nina Dale. The County of Oneida v. Oneida Indian Nation: The Continuing Saga of American Indian Territorial Wars, 4 Pace Envtl. L.Rev. 221 (1986). https://digitalcommons.pace.edu/pelr/vol4/iss1/7
E99.M8 G46 2006 George-Kanentiio, Douglas M. Iroquois on fire: a voice from the Mohawk nation.