Book details maintaining Oneida sovereignty

By: 
Ryan Winn
Columnist

Oneida Nation tribal member Rebecca M. Webster is guided by the teachings of her people. “Under the Great Law, we are taught to carry ourselves with three main principles — kanikuliyo/skana (peace of mind), kanolunkwatsla (love) and katsastʌnsla (power).”

Webster’s book, “In Defense of Sovereignty: Protecting the Oneida Nation’s Inherent Right to Self-Determination,” demonstrates how her nation applies these concepts to their social, political and legal dealings with the village of Hobart.

Webster, an associate professor in the American Indian Studies Department at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, is a former senior staff attorney for the Oneida Nation. Additionally, she noted, “I currently reside on the Oneida reservation and have resided there for most of my life, mostly on the portion of the reservation that the village of Hobart occupies.”

The Oneida Nation has held land in Wisconsin since 1822, but the land they received through their treaties has been reduced by the 1877 Dawes Allotment Act. Webster explained, “Allotment was a process the United States used to break up communal tribal land holdings and give title of smaller parcels to individual tribal members.”

She added, “It was also a way to get ownership of tribal lands into the hands of non-tribal members. For the Oneida Nation, tribal members lost ownership of 90% of the land on the reservation in a single generation due to the effects of allotment.”

Allotted lands were removed from federal trust status, meaning they were subject to taxes and could be owned by non-Native people. In 1903, the Wisconsin Legislature created the town of Hobart, which is located entirely within the treaty boundaries of the Oneida Nation.

A hundred years later, the leaders of what is now known as the village of Hobart tried to deny the sovereignty of Oneida Nation. So far, the village has spent nearly $1 million in losing efforts to impose restrictions on tribally owned lands and community gatherings. Most famously, Hobart lost their lawsuit in state court that attempted to force the Nation to buy a permit to hold their annual Big Apple Fest.

Webster revealed, “This book came about after the Big Apple Fest decision. For a long time, I wanted to find a way to comprehensively educate those wanting to learn more about our litigation history with the village of Hobart. I thought a book would be a perfect vessel to carry that story.”

An influencing factor on the Wisconsin’s circuit court’s ruling against Hobart’s claims was the 2022 federal Supreme Court’s ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma, which affirmed federal, rather than state, jurisdiction over tribal lands.

Webster explicated, “McGirt reaffirmed decades of case law that left reservations intact absent express Congressional action to diminish or disestablish them. One of Hobart’s claims was that the Oneida Reservation was diminished and disestablished. The lower court in the Big Apple Fest case agreed. Thankfully, the seventh circuit rejected this claim, citing McGirt.”

The book also reveals the Oneida Nation’s endeavors to repurchase their original treaty land. In Webster’s words, “Politics are temporary. Nation ownership of land is forever.”

She elaborated that “I think the need to reacquire land lost through allotment happened immediately as the land was being lost. It wasn’t until the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 that the Oneida Nation had a mechanism in place to start to rebuild its landholdings. The Oneida Nation began acquiring land in 1937 and passed several government resolutions setting aside money from its annual budget to dedicate to land acquisition. They did this knowing that it would take generations to rebuild our land base.”

Webster wrote that, due to the Oneida Nation’s victories in court, “relations between the nation and the village can now be written on a clean slate.” She noted that doing so will require Hobart to accept their losses. “With the exception of the still questionable ability of the village to condemn tribal-owned fee land, every single one of their legal theories has been flatly rejected by the courts. We now have a clearly defined place to begin discussion our relationships moving forward.”

Webster conveyed that “My ideal reader is someone who wants to learn more about how tumultuous tribal and local governments relationships can be, as well as learning more about how these relationships can improve. Unfortunately, the conflict draws people in, but the final words talk about how we can grow together as a community.”

To put it another way, Webster’s text, like the author herself, is grounded in kanikuliyo/skana, kanolunkwatsla and katsastʌnsla.

Ryan Winn teaches communications, English and theater at the College of Menominee Nation. Visit www.menominee.edu for more information about the school.