Dear USET/USET SPF Family,
On Thursday, January 26, 2023, the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Seneca Nation against New York State for the ongoing use of an invalid easement over the Nation’s land. This lawsuit arose from a 1954 agreement between Seneca Nation and the New York State Thruway Authority. This agreement stipulated that the Seneca Nation would grant New York State an easement of nearly 300 acres of Tribal Land on the Cattaraugus Reservation. However, under 25 U.S.C. Sec. 177 (the “Non-Intercourse Act”), any easement over Tribal Lands requires the consent of the United States federal government. Therefore, since this easement was never approved by the federal government, no easement could be granted.
The Seneca Nation sued New York State and the New York State Thruway Authority in 1993 to invalidate the easement since the state failed to comply with the Non-Intercourse Act and to seek compensatory damages. Unfortunately, the District Court dismissed the suit and ruled that New York State was an indispensable party under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 19(b)
as well as immune from suit under the U.S. Constitution 11th
Amendment. In April, 2018, the Seneca Nation again filed suit against New York State and the New York State Thruway Authority and asserted that the operation of the Thruway constituted a, “continuing unauthorized use…of operating a toll road without a valid easement.” Seneca Nation also held that the Thruway constituted a violation of federal treaties and laws that established its reservation and protected it from alienation, specifically citing the Canandaigua Treaty of 1794.
USET SPF submitted an Amicus Curiae Brief in support of Seneca Nation on November 19, 2021 and cited flaws with New York State’s arguments regarding the easement over Seneca Lands. USET SPF argued that, “this ‘deal’ was precisely the type of sham transaction that Congress prohibited under numerous treaties and federal law in order to protect Tribal Nations…” USET SPF articulated that the grounds for grants of rights-of-way across Indian lands can only be approved by the U.S. federal government and that such actions uphold the federal government’s trust and treaty obligations to Tribal Nations to protect our lands from alienation. We applaud the ruling of the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals in upholding Seneca Nation’s arguments to invalidate this easement. USET SPF will continue to monitor the activity of this case and we will continue to support the Nation’s efforts to protect its lands from unauthorized use and intrusion by non-Tribal entities.
For more information, please contact Brian Howard, USET SPF Senior Policy Analyst, at email@example.com.