By Stefanie Jackson – Lisa Cypress, an Accawmacke Indian descendant who is suing for ancestral lands currently owned by PNC Bank in Eastville and the Northampton County Board of Supervisors, including Indiantown Park, has received responses to her lawsuit from both defendants, whose attorneys have requested the case be dismissed.
In a August interview with the Eastern Shore Post, Cypress had asserted that the former Indian reservation lands were wrongfully “taken” from her family, and she wants the property returned so the Accawmacke Indians can use it to preserve and promote their history and culture and create economic opportunities for the underprivileged.
She is confident the case will not be dismissed but proceed, even though both defendants have listed multiple reasons why it should not continue.
The primary legal argument made by the Northampton board of supervisors in an Aug. 18 response to the lawsuit (amended by Cypress Aug. 16) was the board is the incorrect party to sue, since it is an entity that cannot own property; the proper subjects of the lawsuit would be Northampton County and the United States of America, because the land was given by the federal government to the county for public use.
Northampton supervisors’ Aug. 18 memo contains a footnote explaining that it appears the U.S. acquired the land that later became Indiantown Park for the Air Force through eminent domain. The case, United States of America v. 87.66 Acres of Land, More or Less, et. al., was heard in the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Virginia, and an order of possession was issued April 25, 1960.
The U.S. granted Northampton County the approximately 52 acres through a quitclaim deed signed April 11, 1974, by Harold Wescoat, then chairman of the Northampton board of supervisors.
(A quitclaim deed means there is no guarantee the grantor holds the title to the property and has the right to sell or transfer ownership but states the grantor’s interest in the property.)
According to the deed, the land previously had been granted to Cecil, Raymond, Lynwood, Thomas, and Leonard Moore Jr., by special commissioners Benjamin Gunter Jr. and William Mapp on Feb. 5, 1957.
The deed also described the property as NASA’s former Eastville camera site.
The parcel was deemed surplus and assigned to the U.S. Department of the Interior to convey to Northampton after the county submitted an application to acquire the property.
The U.S. maintained the right to mine or remove any oil, gas, or other minerals from the land, and ownership of the property would revert to the U.S. if the land was needed for national defense.
The land was to be used as a public park or recreational area, and the property “shall not be sold, leased, assigned, or otherwise disposed of except to another eligible governmental agency” that will continue maintaining and using it for public park or recreation services, according to the deed.
The only reference to Indians is a condition that states Northampton County “shall protect and maintain the Indian burial grounds located on the property herein conveyed.”
PNC Bank responded to the amended lawsuit in an Aug. 26 memo, stating three reasons Cypress’ case should be dismissed.
First, she did not prove her family owns the property in question through title records from 1815 – when the former Indian reservation was divided into parcels and deeded to remaining tribe members – to the present.
According to legal precedent, the burden of proof is on the plaintiff to show ownership of the land, which should be traced back through an “unbroken chain” of title documents, the memo stated.
Cypress provided genealogical information tracing her family history back generations to her fifth-great grandparents Edmund Press and Rachel West, each a recipient of about 25 acres of the former reservation.
PNC Bank noted that Cypress connected its Eastville parcel to William and Molly West, but the genealogy she provided did not include them as her direct ancestors.
Second, the bank claimed that the provided description of the property lacked details to support Cypress’ claim that it is the same property that belonged to her ancestors.
Finally, PNC Bank asserted that the 15-year statute of limitations on disputing the ownership of the property had passed in 1988, assuming Cypress was correct that the bank’s claim of ownership began in 1973.
Reclaiming ancestral Indian lands is not an easy feat. Alice Hutton noted in a June 4 article in The Guardian that sometimes localities will return Indian lands for free – the city of Eureka, Calif., in 2019 returned 280 acres to the Wiyot tribe after 159 years. Other times, Indian tribes must buy back their land, such as the Esselen tribe who purchased 1,200 acres in mountainous Big Sur, Calif., with $4.5 million donated by conservationists.
The fact that the land of Indiantown Park was taken and later given to Northampton County by the U.S. government further complicates matters, not unlike the 1980 Supreme Court case United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, which determined that the Sioux did not receive just compensation for land in the Black Hills territory the U.S. had taken.
The Sioux were awarded more than $17 million plus interest, according to www.justia.com, but they wanted the land and refused the money, which remained in a U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs account and continued accruing interest. About 30 years later, the total award including interest had increased to more than $1.3 billion, PBS NewsHour reported in 2011.
Regarding the Cypress lawsuit, no record of either its dismissal or the scheduling of a court date had been published as of Sept. 9.
During a Sept. 9 conversation with the Eastern Shore Post, Cypress reacted to the motion to dismiss made by the Northampton board of supervisors. “Their grounds for dismissal is extremely weak,” Cypress said. “There’s nothing that they have brought about that can stand unanswered.”
She feels “very confident” in the latest information that she has filed with her lawsuit and that “this is just going to – blow by blow – knock (down) everything that they’ve brought up.”
Northampton County Administrator Charlie Kolakowski said in a Sept. 9 email, “Northampton County has filed a timely response to the lawsuit and we will await the Court’s decision. We will have no other comment regarding the pending litigation.”