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  • Service AgreementsExploring Payment Formulas for Tribal Trust Lands on the Oneida Reservation
  • Rebecca M. Webster (bio)

Many tribal governments throughout the United States struggle with developing and maintaining positive relationships with other governments that have overlapping boundaries.1 Sometimes a tribe and other governments are able to strike an accord and realize a wide array of ways their respective governments can complement each other in order to provide the best services to their shared communities. Other times tribal and local governments find themselves tied up in litigation and negative public relations campaigns due to their inability to find a way to peacefully coexist. The Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin is no different: the tribe enjoys cooperative relationships with most local governments and uncooperative relationships with one. With any luck, tribes and local governments throughout the United States can learn from these experiences as they seek to work toward positive government-to-government relationships.

The Oneida Tribe and local governments have negotiated and continue to negotiate agreements to cover the costs of providing government services to these tax-exempt properties. The problem is that there is little guidance for tribes and local governments to use when considering how to value government services and how to determine what constitutes a fair and equitable payment. The purpose of this study is to use the Oneida Reservation as a qualitative case study to start to gain a better understanding of how the Oneida Tribe and local governments have determined how to structure their payments in hopes of providing guidance for future decision makers on the Oneida Reservation and on other reservation communities in the United States. Unlike other literature on the subject of state-tribal intergovernmental relationships, this study did not focus on increasing tribal sovereignty, questioning state [End Page 347] sovereignty, or empowering one government over the other. Rather, this study approached the problem from a community perspective with an end goal of providing guidance for tribal and local government decision makers who want to find ways to work together.


History of Landownership

In order to understand the current situation the Oneida Tribe faces with respect to its relationships with surrounding governments, an understanding of the tribe’s history with respect to its land base is important. Prior to European contact, the Oneida people lived in what would later become New York State.2 In the 1800s the Oneida people were dispossessed of their land through a series of illegal land transactions. At the same time, there was mounting pressure for New York tribes, including the Oneida, to move westward. In the 1820s the Oneida people moved to what would later become the state of Wisconsin. In 1838 the Oneida Tribe entered into a treaty with the United States, securing a 65,400-acre reservation.3 In 1887, as part of a federal Indian policy aimed at assimilating Indian people into mainstream society, Congress passed the General Allotment Act in an attempt to break up tribal landholdings throughout the United States, taking title from tribal governments and transferring ownership to individual tribal members.4 The majority of the land on the Oneida Reservation was allotted by 1891. With a handful of exceptions, this land became taxable within a few decades. Through tax foreclosures, mortgage foreclosures, and predatory acquisitions, the Oneida people lost title to much of the land on the Oneida Reservation. Although allotment did not disestablish or diminish the reservation, it had devastating effects on tribal land bases and the Indian community.

In the late 1920s and 1930s, through a publication now known as the Meriam Report, Congress learned that the Allotment Act had not succeeded in assimilating tribal members into mainstream society and had not improved the living conditions of Indian people.5 Federal Indian policy shifted to one of self-determination, and in 1934 Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act (ira) in an effort to restore management of tribal affairs to tribal governments and to provide a mechanism for tribes to reacquire land lost through the General Allotment Act.6 The [End Page 348] ira allowed the federal government to take land into trust for individual tribal members and for Indian tribes.

The Oneida Tribe, like many...


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