WASHINGTON – Citizens of the Onondaga Nation traveled to the nation’s capital today to raise awareness of their long trampled on land rights.
In a press conference at the National Press Club on February 28, tribal leaders proudly displayed the wampum belt that U.S. President George Washington commissioned for the Haudenosaunee, an association of tribes in the current New York region, to commemorate the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua. That belt was supposed to guarantee the six tribes of the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, their land and “the free use and enjoyment thereof.”
The original belt, reverentially preserved, shows several figures representing Indians holding hands meticulously sewn onto a white background. Tribal leaders and citizens were noticeably moved when it was unfurled and held up at the conference.
Tribal leaders also cited Washington’s promise to the tribes that the U.S. government “will never consent to you being defrauded. But it will protect you in all your just rights.”
Given the history that they confidently feel is on their side, tribal leaders took the opportunity to announce their intention to wage a new court battle, as well as a concurrent battle for public opinion, given their slim chances for success in courts that have already proven unfriendly.
“We are here today because we are going to appeal the land rights action that we filed in 2005,” Clan Mother Freida Jacques said in kicking off the conference. That appeal in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals asks for a reconsideration of the tribe’s unsuccessful Onondaga Land Rights Action that was dismissed on October 23, 2010 by the Northern District of New York.
The Onondaga Nation had claimed in the case starting in March 2005 that the state of New York had broken federal law when the state acquired 4,000 square miles of land from the tribe from 1788 to 1822. But the U.S. Supreme Court soon issued a ruling in City of Sherill v. the Oneida Nation of New York, saying that the tribe in that case had waited too long to press its own land claim. The Onondaga claim was later dismissed citing that decision without consideration of the merits of the argument.
The new appeal asks that New York admit that it broke the law when it took Onondaga land, and it asks for the court to declare those transactions void. To assuage New Yorkers living in the region, the tribe has said it will not evict landowners, nor pursue a casino if successful. Tribal citizens do want the power to protect the environment and sacred sites.
“The land rights action and the appeal that we are filing today is a test of whether or not the U.S. courts can provide justice to the Haudenosaunee and the Onondagas,” said Joseph Heath, general counsel of the tribe, at the conference. “The facts are not in dispute. New York does not even dispute the fact that it took the lands illegally.”
While the request is considered a long shot, even by some in the Onondaga community, tribal leaders said it is important for the American public to become aware of and to weigh in on the taking of their traditional lands. The goal of the event, organizers said, was to remind the American government and people of their treaty obligations to Indian nations, which have failed many times over to find justice in U.S. courtrooms.
“We’re here to remind the United States and the leaders,” said Oren Lyons, Onondaga faith keeper, in a speech at the conference. “How your United States began is a very old story—and our people were involved with it for three, four hundred years for many meetings over many centuries and many places, all along the Eastern Coast.”
It was during those meetings that the promises to Indians about their lands took place, tribal leaders noted.
“You cannot go about the world proclaiming democracy when you can’t take care of what’s at home,” Lyons added. “This is where we’re at today.”
Tribal leaders have vowed that if the appeal proves unsuccessful, they will take a stand in the international sphere, perhaps with the United Nations. They are hopeful that the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which the U.S. now supports, will provide strength for their case.
“Regardless of how it may turn out…we will fight on,” Lyons concluded.