By Mike McAndrew
The Onondaga Nation said Monday it will continue pursuing its land claim suit against New York despite what its chiefs called a “grave injustice” by the U.S. Supreme Court.
In refusing Monday to hear an appeal by the Cayuga Indian Nation of New York, the Supreme Court bolstered New York’s defenses to the Onondagas’ claim.
Against the Onondagas, New York is expected to raise the same “laches” defense – that the Indian nation waited too long to sue – that the state used to derail the Cayuga claim even after a lower court awarded the Cayugas $247.9 million in damages.
“We know the state will say this case should be thrown out on the same theory,” said Joseph Heath, one of the lawyers for the Onondagas.
Nell Jessup Newton, the University of Connecticut law school dean and editor of Cohen’s Handbook of Federal Indian Law, said the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear an appeal on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissal of the Cayuga land claim “could have a fairly devastating impact” on similar suits by other Native American nations from New York.
But, she noted, the Supreme Court can still decide to hear other appeals on land claim cases involving those New York tribes.
“You’re never supposed to read very much into the Supreme Court’s denial of cert,” Newton said. “It doesn’t mean they approve of a case’s outcome or disapprove. It usually means they don’t feel there’s enough of a controversy yet that they need to weigh in.”
Paul Larrabee, a spokesman for state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, said the state is reviewing how the Cayuga case rulings might affect other land claim cases.
The Onondagas say New York violated the U.S. Constitution and other federal and state laws when it obtained about 4,000 square miles from the Onondagas in a series of treaties between 1788 and 1822. The
Onondagas have asked the court to declare the Onondagas have legal title to the territory, which includes the cities of Syracuse, Oswego, Fulton, Watertown, Cortland and Binghamton.
In October, at the request of the Onondagas, U.S. District Judge Lawrence E. Kahn put a stay on the Onondaga suit until 60 days after the Supreme Court ruled on the Cayugas’ petition. When the stay ends, New York is expected to seek dismissal, Heath said.
“We’ll be ready when the state files its motion to dismiss. You can’t just say, ‘Two hundred years went by, so you have no remedy.’ The state has to show it is entitled to this defense,” Heath said.
Onondaga chiefs said in their statement that the federal courts barred the Haudenosaunee nations from pursuing these land rights cases until 1974.
“These (Haudenosaunee) nations were victim to constant political, social and economic exclusion and oppression,” the Onondaga chiefs said. “Most of their leaders spoke little or no English; they lacked sufficient resources and had no way of obtaining an attorney.”
“The Onondaga Nation criticizes the U.S. Supreme Court for rejecting the appeal of last year’s decision against the Cayuga Nation’s land claim. In that decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, contended that there was no point in remedying New York State’s appropriation of the Cayuga Nation’s traditional territory as too much time had passed since the violation. The Onondaga Nation continues to support the Cayuga Nation – a “younger brother” in the eyes of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy.
“The Onondaga filed their own land rights action in March 2005. While it differs from the Cayuga suit in that it does not seek “disruptive” remedies, the underlying crimes and injustices are virtually identical. The historical facts that the Cayugas did everything they could, that they did not wait too long and that New York knowingly and repeatedly violated federal law and treaties were not contested by the Court of Appeals. The Onondaga will continue their suit regardless of today’s grave injustice.
“In seizing land from the Cayuga, Onondaga, and other Haudenosaunee nations, New York State knowingly violated federal laws, treaties, the U.S. Constitution, and the Trade and Intercourse Acts, which specifically prohibited states from taking territory from sovereign Indian Nations without federal involvement and approval.
“There was no federal response to these actions, however, and at the time the Haudenosaunee could not take New York State to court. These nations were victim to constant political, social, and economic exclusion and oppression. Most of their leaders spoke little or no English; they lacked sufficient resources and had no way of obtaining an attorney.
“The Cayuga, Onondaga, and other nations are not responsible for the delay or ‘laches’ (the legal term that the appellate decision invoked) in suing New York State, given the judicial discrimination that has existed for most of U.S. history. In the 1920s an effort was made by the Haudenosaunee nations to pursue these land rights cases, but the federal court decided that such suits could not be claimed, and the decision prevented these cases from being considered for another 45 years.
In 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the earlier ruling and opened the court house door to the Haudenosaunee. The Cayuga Nation filed their land claim in 1980, and in 1985 the Supreme Court ruled that such claims are valid. While that decision has not been overturned, today’s inaction by the Supreme Court does prevent enforcement of the United States most important federal laws.
“In exploring how to address the century-old crimes committed against sovereign Indian Nations, all parties should consider ways to redress these wrongs so that those living in Central New York today will benefit. Ignoring these historic wrongs and injustices just another chapter in this shameful history of the genocide against Native peoples in this country.
“We renew our call for healing of all peoples in Central New York, and for a full healing of all the lakes, rivers, creek and the natural world.”