SHAWNEE TOWNSHIP — Did the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma wait too long
to file a land claim to its ancestral homeland?
The question is one of many certain to dominate the legal landscape as the tribe’s
land claim lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Toledo, proceeds. The
tribe is certain to say no, while the state was quick to hail a court opinion
this week that seems to indicate the time has passed.
“This is a legitimate claim for land. The tribe wants to pursue this to
the end,” Mason Morisset, a Seattle-based attorney representing the tribe,
said. “One outcome could be taking land in place of these lands included
in the claim. A settlement would be preferable as opposed to going all the way
through the litigation.”
The tribe is seeking title to more than 92,800 acres of former reservation land
in Allen and Auglaize counties, repayment of taxes and other revenues collected
by the state since 1831, as well as use and access rights to more than 11,315
square miles of territory in 36 counties in central and southern Ohio.
Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro praised a decision by the 2nd Circuit U.S. Court
of Appeals in New York that overturned a $247 million award to the Cayuga Indian
Nation because the tribe had waited too long to file its claim. The appeals court
decision follows a U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this year that also ruled
a tribe had waited too long to file a claim.
“This decision is important to Ohioans because it supports our point that
the Eastern Shawnee have no legal claim to lands in our state,” Petro said.
Blake Watson, a law professor at the University of Dayton and an expert in federal
Indian law, said the ruling in New York marks an interesting development but said
that court has no bearing on the U.S. District Court in Toledo.
“I think it is a significant development because the appeals court case
in New York is the first to address whether a tribe can bring a land claim out
of a treaty from 150 to 200 years ago. The outcome was bad for that tribe and
presumably for the Eastern Shawnee,” Watson said. “I don’t think
their claims are frivolous. They’ve pointed out some problems with how land
was sold and with the treaties. They may have a claim, but it may be too late.”
Watson said it doesn’t appear from the tribe’s rhetoric that the lawsuit
is about forcing people off their land.
“Certainly these types of claims have the potential to be very significant.
There have been claims that have been successful,” Watson said. “The
tribe, of course, is quite open that it is not trying to dispossess anyone and
are willing to settle.”
Charles Enyart, chief of the Eastern Shawnee, confirmed the tribe’s intentions
in a letter to Petro in May.
“Unlike what was done to the Shawnee 150 years ago, the Tribe does not want
to dispossess Ohioans of their lands,” Enyart wrote. “The Tribe remains
interested in working with the state and local communities to help return the
Eastern Shawnee to their homeland.”
Morisset said the land claim has been viewed by the tribe as a last resort, a
measure to get state officials to engage in a dialogue about the future of the
tribe and its casino ambitions in the state.
“They’ve been working for some time on perfecting their claim. They’ve
been working very closely with local communities,” Morisset said. “They’ve
tried to engage the state in the same manner but have been rebuffed. The only
thing I would hope is that we don’t continue to get the slammed-door approach
from state officials.”