Lawyers for Onondagas, state spar over whether the case should be dismissed.
By Mike McAndrew
Staff writer – Syracuse Post-Standard
OAlbany- In a courtroom packed with Onondaga Nation members and their supporters, Senior U.S. District Judge Lawrence Kahn reserved decision Thursday on New York’s request to dismiss the Onondaga land rights suit.
Lawyers for the state and the Onondaga Nation argued in court for about an hour whether the case should be dismissed without a trial.
The Onondaga Nation’s suit, filed in 2005, asks the court to declare that New York violated federal and state laws when it acquired a 10- to 40-mile wide swath of land that stretches from Pennsylvania to Canada and includes the cities of Syracuse, Oswego, Fulton, Cortland, Binghamton and Watertown. The suit also asks the court to declare that the Onondagas still hold title to that land.
New York Assistant Attorney General David Roberts told the judge the case should be dismissed because the Onondagas waited too long to sue over the roughly 4,000 square miles the state acquired in treaties between 1788 and 1822.
The Onondagas “are asking the court to completely invalidate title in this great swath of land and essentially cloud what the rights are of everyone who lives in that land,” Roberts said.
Onondaga Nation lawyer Robert “Tim” Coulter said the Onondagas don’t want to evict any property owners or affect their deeds. About 875,000 people reside in the claim area. There are approximately 1,500 Onondagas living on an 11-square-mile territory south of Syracuse.
Roberts noted the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in 2005 dismissed the Cayuga Indian Nation’s land claim suit over 67,000 acres in Seneca and Cayuga counties, citing the long delay in suing and disruptive nature of the suit.
The state is also immune from the suit under the U.S. Constitution unless the U.S. government sues New York on the Onondagas’ behalf, Roberts said.
Coulter said the federal government may intervene soon. An official in the U.S. Department of Interior told him late Wednesday afternoon that the Solicitor’s Office for the Bureau of Indian Affairs has recommended the United States sue New York on the Onondagas’ behalf, Coulter said. He declined to identify the Interior Department official who spoke to him.
The United States previously joined in land claim lawsuits against New York on behalf of the Oneida, Cayuga and Mohawk nations. Coulter said the Onondagas’ case should not be dismissed because it is different than the Cayugas’ claim.
The Cayugas had asked the court to evict current property owners from their claim area. Coulter said that the Onondagas won’t do that.
“The Onondaga Nation itself has been thrown off its lands. It doesn’t want to do that to anyone else,” Coulter said.
“You’re asking that the court say the Indian nation holds title, but nothing would change?” Kahn asked.
“Any declaratory judgment should protect against any unjust outcome for presentday landowners,” Coulter replied. “We’re talking about a title that is grander, more abstract. A title that does not carry possessory interests.”
Title questions Kahn asked if that existed.
Coulter said it did, referring to the situation in Salamanca, where the Seneca Nation holds title to several thousand city properties and leases them to their occupants.
If the court declares the Onondagas hold some form of abstract title to the 4,000 square miles, it could cloud the titles current property owners have, Roberts said.
“Mr. Coulter says they don’t seek to disrupt present-day owners … that live within the claim area. That’s completely inconsistent with the relief sought in this case,” Roberts said.
“The reason they are going through all those gymnastics is because they are trying to find some way of wriggling around the ruling in (the) Cayuga (case),” Roberts said.
Kahn replied, “They’re trying to find justice.”
“They’re trying to find some way to salvage their claim,” Roberts shot back.
Coulter noted that the Onondagas were legally barred from suing the state in federal court for nearly two centuries.
“The Onondaga Nation was excluded from federal and state courts for 185 years. The question is whether it will ever be able to bring its land rights case to the courts,” Coulter told the judge. “The law wasn’t changed to permit bringing an action like this until, at the earliest, 1974. But the Supreme Court didn’t decide these actions were viable until 1985.”
Kahn gave no indication of how long he will take to rule on the state’s motion. In a similar land claim case filed by the Oneida Indian Nation of New York, Kahn took six weeks to rule, deciding that the Oneidas had no possessory right to 250,000 acres in Madison and Oneida counties, but said they might be entitled to profits the state made when it resold the land.
The courtroom was packed with about 80 Onondaga Nation members and non-native supporters from the group Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation. Outside the courthouse, the crowd held up numerous signs supporting the Onondagas. Jun San Yasuda of Grafton, who lived at the Onondaga Nation territory for three years in the 1980s, slowly beat on a Japanese prayer drum.
“We started the day with a prayer,” said Jeannie Shenandoah, an Onondaga, said after the hearing. “We had a lot of hope.”
“All the chiefs and clan mothers that went before us had hope that someday the Onondaga would have justice,” said Wendy Gonyea, an Onondaga faithkeeper. “We have citizens of New York here with us who recognize what their leaders have done. It makes us feel good.” Shenandoah said no property owners should feel threatened by the Onondaga Nation’s suit.
“That’s not to say we don’t want to enlarge our land base. We do.” But she said the Onondagas will not evict anyone.