Allies Respond to Supreme Court Land Rights Decision

From the November-December 2013 PNL #829

by Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation

Editor's note: This piece was originally published as a Letter to the Editor in the Post-Standard.

As members of Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation (NOON) we wish to express our extreme disappointment by the US Supreme Court’s recent denial of the Onondaga Nation’s Petition for Writ of Certiorari review of the dismissal of the Nation’s historic Land Rights Action. It seems that justice for Indigenous Nations in the US court system is not possible and, as with this latest decision, sanctions New York’s undeniable and knowingly illegal taking of the Onondaga Nation’s lands in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

The Treaty of Canandaigua, signed on November 11, 1794, between the Haudenosaunee and the US promised to never seize or disturb Haudenosaunee lands. The US government continues to ignore this and two previous treaties that were made with the Haudenosaunee Six Nations in 1784 and 1789. In doing so, the United States government also abandoned Article Six of the US Constitution, which states that “…all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land.”

For the past 200 years, in every manner available to them, the Onondaga have continually asked the US to honor the treaties and address New York’s historic violations of federal law. But US courts were closed to them until recent years. Now one reason for denying them justice is because they are arbitrarily judged to have waited too long. Is this a no win situation?

In addition, the Onondaga Nation specifically designed their claim to minimize disruption to their neighbors and they are not asking for anyone to be evicted from their land. The Onondaga Land Rights Action seeks only a declaratory judgment: a simple recognition that their land was illegally taken from them.

Because of the example of the Supreme Court in Land “Claim” cases, which did seek to uproot some people, Judge Kahn of the US District Court, Northern District of New York, decided to dismiss their Land Rights Action without even a hearing because it would be “profoundly disruptive.” The Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision. The US Supreme Court has chosen not to review that appeal.

NOON supporters at October 11, 2007 hearing in Federal Court in Albany, NY
regarding dismissal of Onondaga Land Rights Action. Photo: Katie Nadeau

The Onondaga are asking only for a declaratory judgment, but they have never even had an opportunity to present their case in court nor the vast body of research they have compiled.

They have also asked for the opportunity to have an active say in what happens to that land, including Onondaga Lake, which is sacred to them, and was disastrously polluted by the descendants of the people who took their land. Their cultural connection to the environment is expressed in their court case through voicing their concern for the environment. As they have stated we all share this environment. Have they waited too long to press their concern about the environment?

The Doctrine of Discovery has also been cited as setting precedent for denying the Haudenosaunee court cases. US Indian law is based on the Doctrine of Discovery, as established by Justice Marshall in the 1823 case of Johnson v. McIntosh. It claimed that because the Indigenous peoples living in these lands that were “discovered” by the European explorers were not Christian, they were “savages” with no real right to the title of their lands. US courts have repeatedly used this Doctrine to attempt to reduce Indigenous nations’ sovereignty.

But their struggle will likely not end here. For justice, the Onondaga must now try international options. The Nation and their attorneys are considering filing a challenge in an international arena; either the United Nations or the Organization of American States Commission on Human Rights.

As stated in their Land Rights Action, they “wish to bring about a healing between themselves and all others who live in this region that has been the homeland of the Onondaga Nation since the dawn of time...The Onondaga Nation brings this action on behalf of its people in the hope that it may hasten the process of reconciliation and bring lasting justice, peace, and respect among all who inhabit this area.”

Members of NOON express our deep appreciation to the Onondaga Nation for their many efforts to seek reconciliation, justice, peace and environmental protection with and for all of us who live in Central New York. NOON applauds the people of Central New York for accepting the Onondaga Nation’s offer to work for healing and reconciliation. We will continue to bring the people of Central New York together to brighten the “covenant chain of friendship”, and work to support our Onondaga neighbors in this quest for healing, reconciliation and environmental protection which is ultimately in the best interest of us all.

NOON recognizes and supports the sovereignty of the traditional government of the Onondaga Nation.