Outcomes of Cayuga, Oneida cases cited. Onondagas’ lawyer: This suit’s different.
By John O’Brien
The Onondaga Nation waited too long to file its land claim against New York, and any taking of property now would be too disruptive to residents and the government, state lawyers argued in court papers filed Tuesday.
Lawyers for the state submitted a 28-page motion to U.S. District Judge Lawrence Kahn, asking him to dismiss the Onondagas’ lawsuit based partly on those arguments. Assistant Attorney General David Roberts cited a ruling last year by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissing a similar land claim by the Cayuga Nation because that tribe waited too long to file.
Roberts cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to hear arguments in the Cayugas’ claim, along with a previous decision by that court in a claim brought by the Oneidas against the city of Sherrill over a tax dispute.
“The (Onondaga) Nation’s lawsuit is the same type of disruptive, possessory action that the 2nd Circuit held could not be countenanced after a delay of two centuries,” Roberts wrote. He could not be reached for comment.
The Onondagas sued New York state last year, seeking to regain 4,000 square miles they say were taken under illegal treaties two centuries ago.
The same arguments that doomed the Oneidas’ and Cayugas’ claim apply to the Onondagas, Roberts wrote.
A lawyer for the Onondagas, Joseph Heath, said their lawsuit is different. The Onondagas did not name individual landowners and are not seeking to immediately take possession of land, he said. The main objective is to clean the land, air and water, he said.
“Our lawsuit is one of healing, not disruption,” Heath said. He said the Onondagas’ suit has met with favorable reaction from the public, unlike the Cayugas’ and Oneidas’ lawsuits.
The Onondagas must file a response by Oct. 15. Lawyers are scheduled for an appearance before Kahn on Dec. 1.
Heath disputed the state’s claim that the Onondagas waited more than 200 years to make their claim. From the time of the first taking of land in the 1700s, the Onondagas sought to have it overturned, he said. It wasn’t until 1974 that Indian nations could bring their land claims to federal court, he said.
Roberts said in court papers there’s no proof that the Onondagas “strongly and persistently protested” the taking of their land. The Onondagas make no assertion that they made any previous attempts to take their case to court, he said.
The Onondagas didn’t go to court for 200 years because they tried to resolve their grievance between governments, Heath said.
“For them to think about going to court of another government is an act that’s against their sovereignty,” he said.
The Onondagas have six historians doing research that is likely to be heard as evidence in a hearing in federal court, Heath said. Unlike the appellate court rulings on the Cayugas’ and Oneidas’ claims, the Onondagas’ claim is at the trial court level, meaning a hearing on the facts will be likely, Heath said. The burden would be on the state to prove the Onondagas didn’t protest the land takings, he said. John O’Brien can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 470-2187.