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  • Nation v. Municipality: Indigenous Land Recovery, Settler Resentment, and Taxation on the Oneida Reservation
  • Doug Kiel (bio)

in 2002 oneida nation citizen Hugh Danforth saw the coming trouble with Hobart, a majority non-Native Wisconsin municipality located entirely within the treaty boundaries of the Oneida Reservation.1 As the wealthy suburban town of Hobart formally became a village, it gained a greater degree of autonomous home rule. Danforth took to the pages of the tribal newspaper, Kalihwisaks (“She Looks for News”). “Hobart is an urban cancer that will destroy our reservation, our adopted homeland, and our sovereignty if we don’t do something about it,” he warned.2 Writing on another occasion, Dan-forth urged, “It will be harder for the Oneida Nation to buy back land and it will be harder for the Oneida Nation to put land into trust if Hobart becomes a village.”3 He was right. Within a few years, the historically strained relations between the Oneida Nation and the municipal government of Hobart erupted into an ongoing legal battle over the future of their shared territory.

Hobart was born amid a set of competing goals. The Oneida people lost ownership of all but a couple thousand acres of their more than sixty-five-thousand-acre reservation following the implementation of the Dawes General Allotment Act (1887).4 As the Daily State Gazette noted in 1890, an Oneida general council voted unanimously to pursue the creation of towns on the reservation.5 A decade later, when land speculators began gradually encroaching within the reservation, Wisconsin State Assemblyman J. F. Martin proposed that the Oneida Reservation be divided into two townships. Joseph C. Hart, the federal Indian agent at Oneida, purportedly favored Martin's vision for the reservation's future. One local newspaper declared that “up to the present time the Indians have escaped taxation, but under the township system of government, they will be obliged to pay their fair share of the burdens.”6

The proponents of creating the two towns argued that they would bring much-needed resources for infrastructure improvements that would benefit the Oneidas. Moreover, according to the Post-Crescent, published in nearby [End Page 51] Appleton, establishing town governments that could collect taxes “would speedily mean the building of roads and opening the reservation for white settlers.”7 With a small but growing number of non-Native property owners within the reservation boundaries, the newly established governments of the Town of Hobart (1908) and the Town of Oneida (1910) were both led by tribal members.8 As Oneidas gradually became the minority within their own treaty territory, however, they lost political control of Hobart.

When the towns were established, nobody—Native or non-Native—imagined that a century later the Oneida Nation would be in a position to buy back so much of the reservation that their white neighbors would feel under assault by a tribal government whose land base was rapidly growing. The Oneida Nation had reacquired ownership of tens of thousands of acres by the early 2000s, and each acre of reservation land they placed back into federal trust meant one less acre from which the nation’s neighboring municipal governments could draw tax revenue. With Hobart being heavily dependent upon property taxes, transitioning to a village government was an important first step toward enacting their own long-term vision for the land. In Wisconsin, village governments have greater authority than town governments to create tax incremental districts (TIDs) as a mechanism to support development projects that help raise property values. “The village of Hobart Board is mainly interested in growth,” Hugh Danforth remarked, and that stood in contrast to the Oneida Nation’s vision of preserving the reservation’s rural character.9

Beginning in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Oneida Nation had signed service agreements with several other neighboring governments whose jurisdiction overlaps the nation’s: Brown County, the City of Green Bay, and the Village of Ashwaubenon. In light of a complex and checkerboarded reservation map that contains both taxable property in fee simple and numerous nontaxable parcels held in federal trust, these service agreements have provided a reasonable solution for compensating local governments for services...


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