Onondaga Nation seeks justice and honoring of treaties despite courts, Doctrine of Discovery
Washington, D.C.—The Onondaga Nation lawyers filed the appeal of the 2010 dismissal of their Land Rights Action to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City today, but Onondaga and other Haudenosaunee leaders chose Washington D.C. to announce the filing, bringing with them the original wampum belt U.S. President George Washington commissioned for the Haudenosaunee in 1794. The video of the event can be viewed here.
“We the Haudenosaunee, also known as the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy, are here to remind the United States public and your leaders the words of Hanadagá•yas – the first President of the United States, George Washington – and his guarantee through treaties of the Continental Congress and the new United States of the security of Six Nations lands and territories,” announced Onondaga Nation Turtle Clan Faithkeeper Oren Lyons. “If you can’t keep George Washington’s words, whose can you keep?”
“We bring to you, for your inspection the original treaty belt presented to the Haudenosaunee to commemorate in perpetuity the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua between the Six Nations of the Haundenosaunee and the United States for peace and friendship binding our nations together for our common good.”
“People need to know the history,” Lyons further explained, “the alliance between the Six Nations and the new United States was the democratic foundation of the development of your government.”
In their press conference, Onondaga Nation leaders explained the long history of diplomatic relations between the fledgling Continental Congress and eventually the new United States government and the Haudenosaunee.
They announced a new project to bring their large collection of primary historical documents into the digital age, scanning and posting them to the Onondaga Nation’s website. “This is the history not taught in your schools,” stated Onondaga Nation Chief Jake Edwards.
History throws a long shadow. Article VI of the U.S. Constitution proclaims that “all treaties made… shall be the supreme law of the land”. The 1790 Trade and Intercourse Act established that only the U.S. Government, and not the States, have the right to make treaties with nations. The 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua promised to protect Six Nations lands, and yet this did not prevent New York State from acquiring Onondaga and other Six Nations land through illegal treaties.
“New York State did not deny that they had illegally taken the land – they just pointed to the Sherrill, Cayuga, and Oneida decisions and asked for a dismissal of the case,” explained Onondaga Nation General Counsel Joseph Heath.
The Onondaga Nation’s Land Rights Action was dismissed on October 22, 2010 by Judge Lawrence Kahn of the Northern District of New York. It followed the dismissal of the Oneida and Cayuga land claims, which in turn were based on the 2005 Sherrill v. Oneida Supreme Court decision, decided a mere 18 days after the Land Rights Action.
Attorney Heath, in his filing on behalf of the Onondaga, argued that the courts have applied concerns about “fairness” and “disruption” inappropriately, without adequately taking into account the disruption and hardship to the Onondaga Nation caused by New York State’s unlawful conduct, and without considering the care that the Onondaga Nation has taken to ensure their case is not disruptive. The courts have also not acknowledged the continual protest throughout history by the Onondaga Nation for the loss of their land.
“We never understood why people thought they could just take our land,” explained Sidney Hill, the Tadodaho, or leader, of the Onondaga Nation, “but the mention of the ‘doctrine of discovery’ in the Sherill decision made us realize it started long before the United States. It surprised us that it was part of U.S. law, however.”
The Doctrine of Discovery is a racist, discredited 15th century under which the Pope at the time decreed that all land “discovered” by European explorers that were not occupied by Christians could be considered unpopulated and claimed in the name of the exploring Christian nation. The millions of indigenous people in North America and elsewhere around the world were simply considered not to exist and had no rights in the face of the European settlement. The Doctrine is the focus of the upcoming Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues at the United Nations in May 2012.
“By this directive, by fiat, the European nations claimed for themselves the entire Western Hemisphere. It is a demonstration of the incredible arrogance of the time. This has resulted in the subjugation, genocide, relegating indigenous peoples to a subhuman status in international politics,” explained Lyons.
“This is not justice, and it is not equity. Whether or not any justice can be found in the U.S. court system remains to be seen,” said Hill. “How is it fair that through the theft of our land our culture has suffered, our people have suffered, and the environment has suffered, and yet we can seek no remedy for it?”
“These recent court decisions challenge the honor of the United States and the integrity of their Constitution.”
It is hoped that by bringing the history to the attention of the public, healing and justice may be found outside of the U.S. court system, if it cannot be found within.
“It is the duty of the Nation’s leaders to work for a healing of this land, to protect it, and to pass it on to future generations,” the first paragraph of the Land Rights Action reads.
The Onondaga Nation has worked cooperatively with neighbors to stop two coal power plants, shift Onondaga County from building sewage plants to building green infrastructure, and oppose hydrofracking. Now they will continue the battle in the courts and with meetings with government officals.
“Regardless of how it may turn out…we will fight on,” Lyons concluded