October 11, 2007
For More Information:
Joseph Heath, General Counsel, Onondaga Nation, 315-475-2559
Onondaga Communications Office, 315-492-1922
Federal District Court Judge Hears Oral Arguments on New York’s Motion to Dismiss as Central New York’s Environment Hangs in the Balance
Syracuse, NY—The Onondaga Nation’s precedent-setting land rights action received its first test today, as Federal District Court Judge Lawrence E. Kahn heard arguments on New York State’s motion to dismiss the Onondaga’s suit. Lawyers representing the Onondaga Nation presented a detailed history of how New York State used fraud and deceit to steal the Nation’s historic territory, arguing that it would be fundamentally unfair for the court to grant the defendant’s motion to dismiss without a full hearing. By seeking a dismissal, New York and the other defendants are trying to avoid the consequences of their actions.
“The Onondaga Nation has always protested New York State’s stealing of our land and the fact that the State allowed companies like Honeywell to defile it,” said Jeanne Shenandoah, of the Onondaga Nation. “In our suit, we ask for long-delayed justice. And we have our neighbors’ support in this quest.”
Outside the courthouse, two busloads of community activists from Syracuse demonstrated their support for justice for the Onondagas, holding signs saying “Proud Neighbor of the Onondaga Nation” and “Clean Up Onondaga Lake”.
“The Onondaga want what everyone in Onondaga County wants,” said Candee Wadsworth from Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation. “We all want the toxic waste sites cleaned up. We want water clean enough to swim in, that hosts fish safe enough to eat. And air that you can breathe without holding your nose. Why won’t New York State join us in this effort?”
The Onondaga Nation, whose home is located just south of Syracuse, filed their land rights action in March of 2005. The suit is asking the federal court to declare that it was illegal for New York State to take Onondaga lands and that the title to that region continues to belong to the Onondaga Nation. The Onondaga suit seeks “justice and healing,” and the Nation will not settle for a casino. The nation has pledged not to evict or displace New Yorkers who currently live in their historic territory, approximately one tenth of New York State that was taken illegally 200+ years ago.
The Onondaga Nation land rights action names as defendants the State of New York, Onondaga County, and five corporations singled out for polluting lands and waters within the claim area. The most notable defendant is Honeywell International, whose industrial waste has made Onondaga Lake the most polluted body of water on the continent.
Onondaga Lake, the sacred center of Onondaga culture and heritage, is now the most polluted body of water in the United States. Toxins from nine separate Superfund sites are leaching into the Lake and at least 48 different contaminants have been identified in the water, sediment, soil, plants, and fish. Clean-up plans include spreading porous sand and gravel on the Lake bottom and ignoring a vast pool of mercury that penetrates as deep as 55 feet beneath the Lake’s western shore.
“The Onondaga Nation seeks a healing between the people and the land, but as Central New York knows, you cannot rebuild a regional economy around a sick lake,” said Joseph Heath, the General Counsel to the Nation. “For Syracuse and the entire region to get back on its feet, we need to get rid of the toxic soup of chemicals that haunts our waterways. These are natural resources that we have squandered, and the Onondaga who lived here first want the rights to enforce a real clean-up.”
New York State’s claims to the Onondaga lands are based on a series of illegal purchases between 1790 and 1822. As recorded throughout history, the State negotiated the first set of these agreements with unauthorized Onondaga individuals while the Onondaga chiefs were in the Ohio territory helping the United States negotiate peace agreements with other Indian nations.
New York acted in knowing violation of the federal treaties of 1784, 1789 and the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua. The state’s actions in the 1790s and early 1800s also violated the U.S. Constitution and the 1790 Federal Trade and Intercourse Act, which make it illegal to acquire Native American land without federal government approval.
“When New York State took the Onondaga’s land,” concluded Robert T. Coulter, Executive Director of the Indian Law Resource Center and one of the Nation’s lawyers, “there was no legal recourse. The courthouse doors were literally closed to all Indian suits such as this until 1974, when the Supreme Court reversed earlier decisions and ruled that such suits should be heard. Even though the Court ruled that these cases were legally viable in 1985, it is a tremendous challenge to seek justice in such a unique and historic case as this. Justice has been delayed more than 200 years.”