Indian tribes are treated as sovereign governments for many purposes under US law. State and local governments cannot usually make a tribe pay property taxes on its lands.
However, this case was different. The Oneida tribe originally controlled six million acres of land in upstate New York, but signed a treaty with New York in 1788 ceding all but 300,000 acres and, by 1838, when the tribe was forcibly moved west to Kansas, it had only 5,000 acres remaining. Members of the tribe had sold the rest.
In 1997 and 1998, the tribe repurchased some of the original 300,000 acres. The land in question had not been in Oneida hands since 1805. The local town of Sherrill, New York insisted that the tribe had to pay property taxes on the land.
The US Supreme Court agreed, saying that the amount of time that had passed with the land in private hands “precludes the Tribe from rekindling embers of sovereignty that long ago grew cold.”
The problem was the tribe bought the land on its own. The court said that if the US Interior Department had acquired the land in trust for the tribe, then it would have been exempted from taxes.
Congress provided an explicit exemption from state and local taxation for lands that the US government holds for native Americans in trust. The case is Sherrill, New York v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York. The court released its decision on March 29.