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Cayuga Nation files suit against NYS: Seeks Thruway proceeds for portion of highway that passes through reservation land

The Cayuga Nation says it is going to commence litigation regarding the intrusion of the New York State Thruway in Cayuga County.

On Tuesday, the Nation announced in a press release that it plans to sue the state of New York regarding the intrusion of the Thruway through a northeast portion of its 64,015-acre reservation. The suit was filed in federal court and seeks to correct what leaders describe as a “decades long failure by the State to obtain Federal approval for the highway.”

Lauren Maltese, speaking on behalf of the Nation noted that the stretch in question is in the town of Montezuma — just east of the Montezuma Wildlife Refuge.

The Nation says continued operation of the Thruway through the Nation’s Reservation without a valid right-of-way approved by federal officials violates the Nation’s sovereign right to its Reservation, as established by the Treaty of Canandaigua in 1794. The Treaty recognized that the 64,015 acres reserved to the Cayuga Nation were for the Nation’s “free use and enjoyment thereof.”

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To date, Congress has never disestablished the Nation’s Reservation, nor authorized the sale of the Nation’s reservation lands, which principle has been upheld by the various state and federal courts to examine the issue.

Supporting the Nation’s argument is the Congressional Right-of-Way Act, which was enacted in 1948. “[n]o grant of a right-of-way shall be made [through Indian reservations] without the payment of such compensation as the Secretary of the Interior shall determine to be just,” it reads. 

The Cayuga Nation contends that the state, in construction the Thruway, failed to obtain necessary approval from the Secretary of the Interior to take the Thruway across its reservation.

“The Nation, by bringing this matter to Court, seeks to extract the just compensation the Nation and its citizens are owed for the State’s unlawful incursions,” Clint Halftown said in the announcement. “The Nation’s Reservation was set aside by the Treaty of Canandaigua, and the Thruway’s intrusion of the Reservation violates the Federal Right-of-Way Act.  The Nation will pursue this litigation to compel the State to comply with Federal law by providing just compensation for the unlawful intrusion.”

The suit is similar to a prior suit filed by the Seneca Nation regarding the Thruway’s intrusion across the Seneca Reservation in western New York.  The Judge in that case denied the State’s motion to dismiss earlier this year, requiring the State to proceed through the process. The Cayuga Nation is calling for the state to obtain federal approvals, pay for past use, and turn over future proceeds of tolls collected for use of the Thruway through the reservation.