An insider's view of the legal battle between Oneida Nation and village of Hobart
For years, the Oneida Nation has faced challenges to its sovereignty from the village of Hobart, which lies on the eastern half of the reservation, just west of Green Bay.
Disputes ranged from garbage collection to police jurisdiction and roadways. But they always came down to challenging the nation’s ability to self-govern.
“The Oneida Nation is a sovereign tribal government, and Hobart is a municipal government with very limited powers under state law,” said Rebecca Webster, an Oneida citizen and assistant professor in American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. “They constantly and regularly tried to tell the Oneida Nation how it should be going about its business.”
Webster, who previously served as an attorney for the tribe, shares the history of these legal battles in her new book, In Defense of Sovereignty.
A patchwork of land ownership on the Oneida reservation paved the way for the enduring conflict between the nation and Hobart.
The 1887 General Allotment Act led to widespread land loss: In a single generation, Oneida Nation lost more than 90 percent of its land holdings. Later, in 1934, Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act, creating a process for tribes to reacquire land on their reservations.
"Because of all these shifts in federal Indian policy, we now have state and local governments owning land, we have non-tribal members owning land, we have tribal members owning land, we have the tribal government owning land — some people call it a 'checkerboard pattern,'" Webster said.
On top of that, the territory hosts town, city, county, and tribal governments. "All of these different overlapping layers of ownership and jurisdiction lead to a really confusing landscape when you're trying to plan for how this place looks," she said.
The latest — and most consequential — of those battles involved the village’s attempts to force the tribe to obtain permits for its annual Big Apple Fest. Ultimately, the tribe prevailed, when a federal appeals court ruled in favor of Oneida Nation. But Webster said Hobart’s tactics were part of a wider strategy to upend tribal sovereignty throughout Indian Country.