Village Lacks Jurisdiction over Oneida Reservation Land

By: Maria Davis, Assistant Legal Counsel, League of Wisconsin Municipalities

In Oneida Nation v. Village of Hobart, No. 19-1981 (7th Cir. 2020), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held the Village of Hobart does not have jurisdiction over the Oneida Nation (“Nation”) and lacks authority to require the Nation to obtain a permit for the Nation’s annual Big Apple Fest because the festival takes place on land located in the Nation’s reservation. The Seventh Circuit held that individual sales of reservation land over time, in fee simple, to non-tribal members did not diminish the original geographical area of the Oneida Reservation. The Seventh Circuit’s opinion overruled the United States Eastern District Court’s previous ruling, which held that the land the festival is held on is no longer in the Oneida Reservation because it had been sold in fee simple to non-tribal members. 
The Village of Hobart (Village) is located entirely within the Oneida reservation’s original 1838 boundaries. After the Village sought to require the Oneida Nation (Nation) to obtain a permit for its annual Big Apple Fest, the Nation brought an action for declaratory and injunctive relief in the United States Eastern District Court challenging the Village’s authority to enforce its special events permit ordinance against the Oneida tribe, its officers, and its employees. The Village counterclaimed for declaratory relief. The Nation argued that as a federally recognized Indian tribe, it is immune from state and local regulations within its reservation and not subject to the ordinance. The Village challenged the Nation's claim that the boundaries of the original Oneida Reservation remain intact and contended that it is entitled to enforce its ordinance to the extent necessary to protect the health, safety, and welfare of its residents and the public.   
The district court held that the fee lands within the reservation’s original boundaries that were conveyed by tribal members to non-tribal members following Congress’ allotment, and not reacquired and placed into trust by the federal government, were no longer part of the reservation and that land owned by the Nation in fee simple was subject to the village’s special events permit ordinance. The Seventh Circuit disagreed and reversed the District Court’s decision, holding that the Oneida Reservation – established by treaty in 1838 through a series of Congressional allotment acts – can only be disestablished or diminished by Congress, which had not happened. Oneida Nation, No. 19-1981, slip op. at 1.  
The Seventh Circuit applied the Solem Diminishment Framework, established by Solem v. Bartlett, 465 U.S. 463 (1984), to determine whether the reservation territory had, in fact, been diminished by piecemeal sales of land to non-tribal members. The court looked, in order of importance, to statutory text, the circumstances surrounding a statute’s passage, and subsequent events for evidence of a “clear congressional purpose to diminish the reservation.” Oneida Nation, No. 19-1981, slip op. at 2 (internal citation omitted). On each factor, the court held that there was no evidence of such a congressional purpose.  In doing so, the court took the recent United States Supreme Court case – McGirt v. Oklahoma, 140 S. Ct. 2452 (2020) – into account, reading McGirt to “adjust the Solem framework to place a greater focus on statutory text, making it even more difficult to establish the requisite congressional intent to disestablish or diminish a reservation.” Oneida Nation, No. 19-1981, slip op. at 2-3. The court concluded the Oneida Nation prevails under both the Solem framework and the adjustments made in McGirt. The Seventh Circuit also rejected additional grounds for affirmance that were proposed. Accordingly, the court held that the Oneida Reservation, as originally established, remains intact and the Nation cannot be required to obtain the Village’s special events permit for the Big Apple Fest. 

Read the decision here.