The Iroquois land claims were essentially knocked out of court last week. It was a pivotal moment in Upstate history. It cried out for thoughtful, gracious words from the winners.
Instead, the most memorable quote came from William Dorr, lawyer for Cayuga and Seneca counties: “There’s no wrong to correct. The wrong was (26) years of litigation. The wrong was the Indians trying to get something for nothing.”
Something for nothing.
That takes an awful lot for granted about an awful lot of people. Some of us have actually listened to living, breathing Indians who seem far less interested in “something for nothing” than in resolving what they maintain is a 200-year-old injustice.
Last week, we also waited for someone – notably Gov. George Pataki or U.S. Sens. Chuck Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton – to offer a statement invoking that kind of gravity.
Fat chance. All we heard was officials in suit coats, slapping hands.
It was pathetic. Central New York is a community carved from the lands of the Six Nations, a community that proudly retains Indian names for many of its lakes, streams and hills. The Supreme Court decision focused on the Cayugas, who had won a string of court victories and a $247.9 million settlement. For years, federal courts had consistently upheld the Cayuga argument, which was almost identical to the point made by other Iroquois governments:
The Cayugas, who lost their ancestral homeland in disputed land sales in the 1790s and early 1800s, contended that federal law had expressly prohibited the state from buying up that Indian land, which would mean the Indians remained the rightful owners.
In the end, that claim got tossed for one reason: A federal appeals court decided the Cayugas waited too long to see a judge. Last week, the Supreme Court declined to review that decision, which almost certainly means the same legal reasoning can be used against claims by the Oneidas and the Mohawks. . . .
And against at least part of the claim by the Onondagas, who assert ownership of a huge swath of aboriginal land, including Syracuse.
Those land claims might be finished. It might be that the Six Nations have nowhere left to go with assertions they’ve made publicly since at least the 1910s, when the state Everett Commission was created to do an Upstate fact-finding tour regarding the same questions.
Still, it is only fair to remember the one issue missing notably from the recent decisions:
The judges never say the Indians are wrong. They simply say the Cayugas waited too long to go to court.
The ruling, while final, will cause endless debate. It is part of the historical record, for instance, that Harry Webster, the Tadadaho or spiritual leader of the Onondagas, took his own grievance to court in 1837.
Harry tried to win back some of the land his people gave to Harry’s father, Ephraim, the interpreter for the land deals in which the Onondagas surrendered much of what is now Central New York. Ephraim was a white man who lived among the Indians, married an Onondaga woman, fathered a son with her and then left to again live among the whites and start another family.
When he died, he left none of that land to Harry, and it stayed in the hands of his white children. Years later, in a newspaper interview, one of the jurors in the case recalled that many people in the courtroom were profoundly troubled by Harry’s story. It didn’t make a difference. Harry lost.
The question then was the same as the question now: Was Harry after “something for nothing”? Or was he an early combatant in a far more sweeping legal battle?
If he was, then the Supreme Court has closed one of the last remaining doors in a dispute as old as this community. That decision, it would seem, demands a level of grace from the victors that we have yet to hear. Let me suggest the kind of public statement that I only wish had been made last week by our governor or our senators:
“As you may already know, the Supreme Court has all but ended the Cayuga land claim. The justices declined to review a lower court decision based on ‘laches,’ the idea that the Cayugas took too long to go to court. We believe this same reasoning can and will be used to end the Upstate claims of other Iroquois nations.
“We are happy for the residents and business owners in the claim areas, whose interests we have tried to protect. But we would also like to express our sympathy to those within the Six Nations who sincerely feel that they were wronged 200 years ago, and who undoubtedly feel they have been wronged again this week.
“We did what we had to do for our constituents. We remain aware of the extraordinary and often difficult history of the Six Nations in Upstate New York, and we are glad that our people have lived side by side for more than two centuries. We hope, when the pain of this decision recedes, that our communities can return to a warm, mutually productive friendship.”
Boom. In three simple paragraphs, a strong leader could have evoked relief, compassion and respect.
No one wasted that effort on the Indians. After all, even with words, why give them something for nothing?