by Jeanne Shenandoah
Syracuse Post Standard Editorial Page
The United States of America is governed by the Constitution, treaties and laws. They are not meant to be violated or broken, and when they are, justice should be served.
When New York State acquired the territory of the Onondaga, Cayuga, and other Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) nations in the late 18th and 19th centuries, the State did so in knowing violation of the U.S. Constitution, the federal Trade and Intercourse Act, and sovereign treaties between these ancient Indian nations and the United States.
Last year, we filed a land “rights” action seeking justice and healing, not the forced return of land. We declared that any settlement regarding the land would not include casinos or gambling. We also pledged not to attempt to evict or displace current residents, seeking instead a peaceful path of co-existence. Essentially, we wanted to begin a “truth and reconciliation” process.
Unfortunately, two recent federal court rulings on cases brought by the Oneida and Cayuga nations found that even though New York State officials violated treaties and federal laws, it was too late to address the claims now. Neither of these decisions specifically voided the land claims, only the particular remedies, which were very different that those requested by our case. Yet New York State is still trying to dismiss the Onondaga’s land rights action and deny us justice.
The Onondaga’s goal is to use the case and the rights to our ancestral lands to clean up the more than 90 federal and state superfund sites that contaminate Central New York. Onondaga Lake-the spiritual heart of our Nation and the center of Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) culture-was once a tourist destination and its whitefish were a delicacy. Today the lake is a toxic mess and its fish inedible. And New York State’s response to this tragedy is to leave the pollution where it is, spread porous sand and gravel on the poisons, and hope for the best.
Near Watertown, also part of the Onondaga’s historic territory, a factory farm disgorged more than three million gallons of manure and other wastes into the Black River last year when an earthen dam holding a gigantic reservoir of livestock waste broke. The deluge of cow manure killed millions of fish and devastated the city’s water supply. The growing number of factory farms in Central New York hold similar threats to our environment.
The Onondaga will answer New York State’s motion to dismiss our land rights action with legal papers of our own. These legal maneuvers are nothing new; suits by Indian nations have never been resolved quickly. But instead of facing the core issue of the case – the claim for justice by the Onondaga Nation and its promise to use its newly recognized rights to improve its ancestral land – New York officials duck, weave and claim that the case is stale. It would be far better to arrive at a solution that would benefit everyone in Central New York.
Our ancestors once lived off the land, an option unthinkable today. There are too many superfund sites, wastelands and financial sinkholes into which money is poured to keep people out and toxic poisons in. Leaving all these toxics in place, to haunt our children and grand children, will stand in the way of this region’s economic recovery.
It is only when we all come together, purging our environment and our relationships of the poisons that have accumulated over time that we can honestly address the question of Indian land rights. Until then, legal briefs will be met with legal briefs. Better to save paper and trees and deal with the real issue, which is how to improve people’s lives, protect public health and restore Central New York to its former status as a vibrant part of the economy of the United States.