The news of the dismissal of our land rights case September 22, 2010 stung. Reading the words of U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence E. Kahn were to me, a biting dose of unwelcome reality. The decision states: “The profoundly disruptive nature of the Onondaga Nation’s claim in readily identifiable throughout its Amended Complaint.” And further, “Sherill, Cayuga, and Oneida foreclose any possibility that the Onondaga Nation’s action may prevail; the Court is bound by these precedents to find the Nation’s claim equitably barred and subject to dismissal.”
It had taken Judge Kahn five years to re-state decisions in the previous mentioned cases-five years to dismiss the important message on behalf of the lands we share today with Central New York; to turn us away, without the opportunity to explore meaningful negotiations and redress the historical wrongs. It hurt. It is insulting, but, it is not the end.
In filing our land rights (we purposefully did not use the word land ‘claim,’ but instead called ours a land rights case, as it is our inherent rights, and those of our ancestors, that we seek justice. We took a big step when we filed papers in federal court in Syracuse March 11, 2005. But this was not the beginning. Our people spoke out in the 1700’s about the theft of almost all of our aboriginal lands by the State of New York. The new state divided up parcels of our lands to pay soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War. Speculators, soon to be barons, wheeled and dealed to get their hands on our lands to make money through trade, transportation and settlement. In 1789 Onondaga Chief Sharongyowanon told then Governor George Clinton: “We did not expect that you, after advising us to shun private treaties with individuals and avoid selling our lands to your disobedient children, that you would yourself purchase lands from a few of our wrong headed young men, without the consent or even knowledge of the chiefs.”
The legal concept of ‘laches,’ that we waited too long to file, is an argument they use, perhaps because they don’t have evidence to refute us. It’s like the bully who changes the rules when he knows he can’t win. We know our ancestors objected to the land takings, and we know our contemporary leaders have taken every opportunity to soundly and diplomatically challenge the history of the ever growing empire state. In the words of our beloved Tadodaho, Chief Leon Shenandoah: “What you call the United States, we call Turtle Island. This is where the Creator planted us and when he did, he made us free. Europeans were not planted here, but you came here because you wanted to be free like us. In our original instructions, we were told that nobody could own the land. Then the Europeans decided that all of the Great Turtle Island was theirs to own. That wasn’t funny to us anymore.”
In our land rights case, we named NYS as a violator of federal law, but we also named the city of Syracuse, Onondaga County, and five of most flagrant polluters in Central New York; Honeywell International (bought Allied Chemical-polluters of Onondaga Lake), Clarke Concrete (polluting Tully Valley), Hansen Aggregates (open pit mine in Jamesville), and Trigen Energy Corp. (emits toxins burning waste). Our case was taking a stand, not only were we challenging history, we called attention to what is happening to our lands today. We cited ancient teachings- natural law. Our land rights action is a catalyst to move toward environmental stability and balance, not just for the Onondaga Nation, but on behalf of all people and all life.
Our environmental message was enthusiastically welcomed by our neighbors throughout Central New York and beyond. Many of our neighbors have come to terms with their clouded history and are willing to help make it right. The citizens group, NOON, or Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation, has grown in numbers and continuously offers support, most recently by collaborating with colleges and universities to host an educational series called “Our Common Future II.” Members of NOON are visible and active, and, they are friends.
In retrospect, there were many on-going factors in need of agreement before we reached the decision to file. The original plan was to file united as a Confederacy. But, as we all know that wasn’t to be. As a result we’ve had the Oneida Sherill decision and Cayuga decision to set precedents that affect our case. Prior to filing it was very difficult to have our say about Onondaga Lake, and other matters affecting us, because we weren’t taken seriously. That has improved somewhat. We waited for the Department of Justice to join us in a supportive move-as our lawyers insisted they are morally obligated to do, but they never did. The DOJ didn’t step up in support of us- knowing NYS violated federal law when it took our lands. We went to court alone, inserting the words-“on behalf of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.”
We’ve had our ups and downs since we filed in 2005. We traveled to Albany in 2007, and were joined by many NOON citizens when our lawyers presented oral arguments before Judge Kahn. We gathered at Tom Porter’s for talks, food, and good hopeful feelings on our way home. In May 2010 our lead attorney, Tim Coulter, a familiar face at Onondaga, resigned as counsel on our land rights case citing his disagreement with terminology used regarding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery. Attorneys Curtis Berkey and Alex Page, based in Washington, D.C., are filling the void left by Coulter. Joe Heath continues to be Onondaga’s main counsel.
Since we filed, new faces now sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. A new President was sworn in and reached out to Native peoples soon after settling into office. These are some of the alternative avenues we may need to face after the conclusion of our appeals process- which is where we are now. We may end up taking our land rights case to World Court. These scenarios/options were discussed soon after the dismissal in September by our Nation’s Council and legal team.
Some of us may have thought since our case is unique, that we strived to make dishonorable history honorable, that we sincerely want all citizens, native and non, to restore environmental damage before there’s nothing left to destroy, that such a noble cause would matter to the legal system whose mantra is justice after all, but we were sorely disappointed by Judge Kahn. However, our journey on this road is not over. We’ll live on. We’ll continue to build alliances. Canandaigua remains firm. Our way of life continues, and our next generation will carry on our important, imperative message of unity for our earth and all that lives within.