By John O’Brien
Syracuse Post Standard Staff writer
The Onondaga Indian Nation updated its lawsuit against the state this week in response to a court throwing out another tribe’s land claim two months ago.
A federal appeals court in June dismissed the Cayugas’ land claim, ruling that the tribe waited too long to file it. The 2nd U.S. Court of Appeals overturned a $247.9 million judgment awarded to the Cayugas in 2001 and said the tribes have no legal claim to 64,015 acres of ancestral land.
The Onondagas expect the state to cite that ruling in asking that their claim be thrown out, according to their lawyer, Joseph Heath. The Onondagas filed the amended lawsuit Monday in federal court in Syracuse.
The new lawsuit says the Onondagas have repeatedly complained to the government that their land was stolen from them more than 200 years ago. It wasn’t until recent years that U.S. courts were open to such land claims, the new lawsuit says.
“Until recently, the Onondaga Nation faced serious obstacles to the assertion of the rights that are the subject of this lawsuit,” the new claim says. The obstacles included a lack of money, lawyers, federal court jurisdiction and an adequate understanding of English, the suit said.
“Under these circumstances, the lapse of time between the illegal transactions and the filing of this lawsuit is not unreasonable,” the lawsuit said.
“Our argument is that those facts do not apply to the history in Onondaga,” Heath said. “The courts were not open to them until very recently, that they had not delayed, and that they are not guilty of” waiting too long.
David Roberts, an assistant attorney general who’s handling the case for the defense, declined to comment.
The defendants’ deadline for a response is Aug. 16. But the new lawsuit will probably mean a judge will give the state and the other defendants more time to file their responses, Heath said.
The lawsuit names as defendants the state, Onondaga County, Syracuse and four businesses that the nation blames for pollution. It accuses New York of violating federal law when the state acquired 4,000 square miles of land from the Onondagas from 1788 to 1822.
The lawsuit asks a judge to declare the Onondagas the rightful owners of their aboriginal land – a 250-mile-long, 40-mile-wide band that’s centered in Syracuse.