From the door of Dorothy Webster’s small home on the Onondaga Nation, she can see the place where she first met Laura Cornelius Kellogg.
“She would come here and stay at my mother’s house,” said Dorothy, who was a little girl when Kellogg would show up for visits, a traveler wearing orthopedic shoes.
“She wanted the land back,” Dorothy said, “but it never got going.”
Dorothy is a clan mother, a position of authority among the Onondagas. Her story about Kellogg helps to explain her calm reaction to last month’s ruling by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which dismissed the Cayuga Indian land claim in Seneca and Cayuga counties. The judges ruled the Cayugas waited too long to take their claim to court, sending waves of anxiety across the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy.
With the Onondagas in the early legal stages of asserting ownership of thousands of square miles of Upstate land, it might seem as if Dorothy would respond with stark despair.
She has seen too much, starting with Kellogg, to let this keep her up at night.
“That’s all down the road,” Dorothy said, referring to long-term implications of the ruling. “I’m not even going to think about it. I just thank goodness I woke up this morning.”
She is a master of the dry humor of her people. When a doctor recently said she needed a new hip, Dorothy replied, “I need a whole new body.” She is in her 70s. Her husband, William, died 11 years ago this month, but her three daughters – and her grandchildren – don’t live far from her house.
“It’s not that fabulous to some people,” she said, “but to me it’s always home.”
That is her passion, a place to put her faith. She does not trust casino money. She does not trust the federal courts, or New York’s government. She does not trust the fast-moving culture in the city just beyond her nation’s borders, a culture that she blames for drug and alcohol abuse among the young.
She trusts only in the sense of permanence at Onondaga, an atmosphere she sees as increasingly threatened, which to her should drive all decisions by her people.
“I support the nation in every way to keep what we’ve got left, what little we’ve got left,” Dorothy said.
To make her point, she offered the story about Kellogg, an Oneida Indian from Wisconsin. In the 1920s, long before Dorothy met her, Kellogg often journeyed among the Indian territories of Upstate New York. She maintained the Six Nations had been cheated of great swaths of land by state officials.
Kellogg needed money to pursue the case. Many Onondagas got behind her, swept up by visions of a rich settlement. “People sold their hogs and cows and horses to help,” Dorothy said.
That court victory never happened. Amid the disappointment, angry Onondagas removed their Tadadaho, or spiritual leader, who had been a vocal supporter of Kellogg.
The saga, for Dorothy, served as an early warning. It was reinforced when her parents taught her the painful origins of her English name. Dorothy is a direct descendant of Ephraim Webster, often described as the first white pioneer in Central New York.
Ephraim, who married an Onondaga woman, was the interpreter for the disputed 1790s land deals in which the Onondagas turned over most of what is now Central New York to state agents. Harry Webster, Ephraim’s Onondaga son, would grow up to serve as a 19th-century Tadadaho.
Yet Ephraim left his Indian family to marry a white woman. According to old records at the Onondaga Historical Association, he continued to live on land he had received as a gift from the Onondagas. As an older man, Ephraim chose to die among the Iroquois, but his will listed only his white wife and their white children as his legal heirs.
In the 1830s, Harry went to court to claim a piece of his father’s estate. If you look at a map, you can clearly see it as a bite-sized chunk in the corner of the Onondaga territory. That is land the Onondagas gave as a gift to Ephraim Webster, who left none of it to his own Indian son.
The trial, by all accounts, was dramatic. You might call it the first Onondaga land claim, although Dorothy mainly recalls a familiar precedent:
She kept that in mind last March, when her people filed their court papers.
Throughout an interview, when Dorothy comes to an idea difficult to express, she will sometimes turn to Onondaga words. She still “thinks in Indian,” which puts her among the few surviving elders fluent in the old language. Some concepts and ideas, Dorothy said, don’t translate into English.
Without the language, that way of thinking would be lost for good.
To Dorothy, being Onondaga is about living on land that’s never belonged to anyone except her people, land where she’s watching her own grandchildren grow up. It is about the cornhusk dolls she makes each summer to sell at the state fair. It is about the feeling she gets “when you leave the off ramp and you breathe that sigh of relief that now you’re home.”
And it is about the words, in her own tongue, that describe each of those things.
One court ruling, then, is not enough to ruin her day. If Dorothy worries, it’s because she sees bigger things at risk.