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Hobart and Oneida Nation: Understanding the history of clashes between two communities

Posted at 8:32 AM, Feb 25, 2023

ONEIDA (NBC 26) — Rebecca Webster was born and raised on the Oneida Nation Reservation. Growing up, she said she saw firsthand the misunderstanding from other communities.

As a result, she became an attorney for the Oneida Nation. The first lawsuit she fought was in 2003, filed by the Village of Hobart, which wanted to turn part of the reservation into an industrial park.

Since then, she said she's spent a lot of her time fighting lawsuits from the village, and now she wrote a book on her experiences.

"Until we can educate the public and get them to understand what's going on here, we're going to keep falling into these patterns of filing lawsuits against each other instead of having serious conversations and sitting down at the table and acknowledging each other's right to exist, each other's right to govern and finding ways to work together," Webster said.

Webster is the author of "In Defense of Sovereignty." The book, recently released by the University of Wisconsin Press, discusses the history of the Oneida Nation's settlement and the lawsuits.

"A lot of people aren't necessarily familiar with the history of the Oneida Reservation," Webster said. "I mean, our reservation was established before Wisconsin became a state."

She said the lawsuits mainly involve land use and following municipal ordinances.

Elaine Willman is also an author, who has written about federal policy toward Native Americans. She was the Village of Hobart's Tribal Affairs Director from 2008 to 2015.

She said that Oneida filed multiple lawsuits against the village.

"Hobart was in a constant position of defending themselves against the tribal government to preserve its municipal authorities," Willman said. "That's why they brought me out there."

Willman said the challenges between the communities stem from disagreements on jurisdiction, funding, and communication, but she thinks their relationship has gotten less aggressive over the years.

"By the time I retired in 2015, there was a fairly good, 'live and let live' relationship," Willman said.

However, Webster said she thinks there's a long way to go.

"As long as people don't understand the history of Oneida, or they don't understand the lawsuits or the damage that can come when governments can't find a way to agree, nobody wins in those situations."

For now, Oneida and Hobart are working together to convert former railroad tracks into a trail that will connect the communities.