By WILLIAM KATES
Associated Press Writer
SYRACUSE, N.Y. — The Onondaga Indian Nation has persistently protested that New York state stole its historic territory and the tribe was blocked from its day in court for nearly two centuries by the American legal system, tribal officials said Monday.
The Onondaga leaders were responding to a bid by the state to get the tribe’s land claim thrown out of federal court.
“We are trying to do this in a civil way, even though we have a lot of anger, a lot of frustration,” said Sid Hill, an Onondaga chief and the Tadodaho, or spiritual leader, of the six-nation Iroquois Confederacy.
“We don’t want to be in court. But we have no other way. No one is listening,” Hill said.
The Onondagas filed a lawsuit in March 2005 that laid claim to 4,000 square miles in 11 upstate New York counties stretching from Pennsylvania to Canada. About 875,000 people live in the area, which includes Syracuse and other cities.
They have stressed they are not seeking monetary damages, eviction of residents or rental payments. Instead, they want a court judgment that New York violated federal law in acquiring ancestral tribal lands and that the land continues to belong to the Onondagas.
Onondaga leaders have said they would use their claim to force the state to clean up hazardous, polluted sites like Onondaga Lake.
In August, the state asked U.S. District Judge Lawrence Kahn to dismiss the Onondagas’ case, contending the tribe waited too long to sue.
The state cited a 2005 decision by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled the Cayuga Indians waited too long to pursue their land claim. The Cayugas sued New York in 1980. After going to trial in district court, the Cayugas and the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma won a $247.9 million judgment against the state in 2001, an award reversed by the appeals court.
Last year, in another case involving a New York tribe, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that too many years had passed for the Oneida Indian Nation to claim that its reservation lands were again sovereign and tax-exempt.
The state insists the same arguments that doomed the Oneida and Cayuga claims apply to the Onondagas.
“They don’t even deny they broke the law anymore,” said Joseph Heath, the tribe’s attorney. “They just say it happened too long ago. They want to waltz off into the sunset and forgot about any justice.”
The Onondagas said their case is different, and they filed over 1,000 pages of legal papers on Thursday to bolster their case, including a number of primary historical documents, Heath said.
The state’s claims to Onondaga lands are based on a series of purchases between 1790 and 1822. But the state negotiated the first two of those deals with unauthorized representatives of the tribe while the chiefs were in the Ohio territory helping the federal government negotiate peace agreements with other Indian nations, Heath said.
None of the deals was ever approved by the federal government, which is required by federal law, treaties and the U.S. Constitution, the Onondagas contend.
Within months of the first acquisition, Onondaga chiefs traveled to Albany to protest the deal, and they have been seeking to regain their lands ever since, Heath said.
“It would be like someone claiming to own your home because of a contract signed by someone who happened to be standing on the lawn,” Heath said.
When New York made its land deals, the Onondagas, like other tribes, were the victims of “constant political, social and economic exclusion and oppression” and faced “intense and open racism,” said Chief Oren Lyons.
In the 1920s, the Onondagas tried to take New York state to court, but the federal courts ruled that such suits could not be heard in the federal courts. Only in 1974 did the U.S. Supreme Court open the courts to Indian land claims, Lyons said.
The state has until Dec. 15 to respond to the Onondagas’ arguments.