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Oneida tribe wins closely watched Wisconsin legal fight
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Oneida tribe wins closely watched Wisconsin legal fight

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In this 2014 file photo, Ed Delgado, chairman of the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin, listens to Laurie Boivin, chairwoman of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, as she delivers the State of the Tribes address at the Wisconsin State Capitol.

A federal appeals court on Thursday sided with the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin in its fight over a village’s authority to require a special events permit for an apple festival, in a case that could have wide-ranging impacts across the U.S.

While the lawsuit on its face was about whether the tribe needed a permit for its annual Big Apple Fest, the underlying issue was tribal sovereignty. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower court’s ruling in favor of Hobart, saying “the Village lacks jurisdiction to apply its ordinance to the Nation’s on-reservation activities.”

The tribe had support from the state of Wisconsin, the U.S. government, the National Congress of American Indians and the Indian Land Tenure Foundation in its appeal of U.S. District Judge William Griesbach’s 2019 ruling. He found that because much of the Oneida reservation had been sold over the years, the reservation itself was diminished, meaning that the festival had been held off the reservation, thereby subjecting the tribe to village rules.

The tribe argued that decades of rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court and other lower courts on similar cases have determined that legal diminishment of a reservation requires a specific congressional decree, something that has not been done for the Oneida reservation in Wisconsin.

The state argued that the lower court’s ruling could negatively impact cooperative state-tribal relationships not just with the Oneida but other tribes, including over deals for dividing revenue from tribal casinos.

The 7th Circuit agreed.

“The Oneida Reservation defined by the 1838 Treaty remains intact, so the land within the boundaries of the Reservation is Indian country under (the law),” a three-judge panel on the court said in reversing the previous ruling.

Attorneys for the tribe and the village did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

The tribe has been holding the apple festival every September since 2009.

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