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Federal judge recommends partially upholding Mohawk land claim

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A federal court handed down a ruling Monday in a decades-old lawsuit that recommended upholding the land claim of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, the People of the Longhouse and the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs to 2,000 acres known as the “Hogansburg Triangle.”

But Judge Thérèse Wiley Dancks of the U.S. District Court in Syracuse recommended dismissing the claims to about 10,000 acres in the towns of Fort Covington and Massena, and to Barnhart, Croil and Long Sault islands in the St. Lawrence River.

Barnhart Island houses part of the Robert Moses Power Dam; Long Sault Island houses part of the Long Sault dam, which keeps 90 feet of water from washing into the lower portion of the St. Lawrence Seaway and also controls water levels in the upper part of the Seaway.

In the suit, the tribe seeks rent for the period it has been denied ownership of the land — since the mid-1800s — along with the value of minerals and resources taken from it, and damages for pollution and destruction brought on by the defendants, which include the state, the town and village of Massena, the towns of Fort Covington and Bombay, state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, the New York Power Authority and the former Niagara Mohawk Power Co., now known as National Grid.

A Monday news release from the tribe said the case now will go on to a senior U.S. District Court judge. The legal process could take six months or more if the parties receive extensions or the judge does not rule quickly, the release said.

“Our case for the Hogansburg Triangle has not been dismissed, and we will continue to litigate and fight to get our land back for as long as it takes,” St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Chief Randy Hart said in a news release.

In the claims that were denied, Judge Dancks in her ruling said the land in question is not populated primarily by Mohawks. She cited three court decisions in the past decade in the state that said when a land claim is made to an area that is not primarily populated by American Indians, has a distinctly non-Indian culture and character and the alleged wrongful taking is significantly in the past, regranting sovereignty would create a disruption too extreme to justify.

The judge recommended upholding the Hogansburg Triangle claim because evidence provided shows that it has a Mohawk population significant enough to consider the tribal claim.

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