Justice Delayed: US Supreme Court Refuses To Hear Onondaga Nation Appeal

From the November-December 2013 PNL #829

by Wendy Gonyea

The news took me by surprise as I held out the hope that we would have our day in court; truly, and we would have the opportunity to tell our land rights history in a national forum in the highest court in the land. I had envisioned our case being a unifying struggle for all our relatives across the land who have felt the sting of racist courts, who have been let down by a system routinely stacked against them because they—we—represent the conscience of American society. We are the survivors of generations of indigenous peoples who were placed here, who were pushed aside-and worse- for the growth of a new Empire. We were going to have our own ‘march on Washington’ with our songs, our drums, our people seeking justice in the name of our small community, the Onondaga Nation. That was my optimistic outlook. But the hard reality exists. We were turned down by the Supreme Court. The question remains. Where can we go to find justice?

Since the latest news, I’ve searched for alternatives to regain momentum in this long struggle ahead, and found strands of what could be our land rights movement. Ideas of a ‘truth commission’ are not unrealistic. Our lawyers and leaders have followed the international case of the Dann sisters where the Western Shoshone found relief from an oppressive situation. It could be our path as well.

In retrospect, if we did get to the Supreme Court we would be challenging the Marshall Trilogy of US Federal Indian Law. These laws, still on the books, are the direct result of the Christian Doctrine of Discovery that saw our people as ‘less than’ and too ‘heathen and inferior as a race.’ It’s unbelievable to think this is the law of the ‘highest court’ and the foundation of so many cases to follow, including Haudenosaunee cases. How blatantly insulting to tell the Oneidas ‘their embers have gone cold.’ We know our existence is fraught with too many modern instances of lingering racism. When a New York Governor can limit state employees from talking freely with native peoples, when a NYC Mayor can call for a “cowboy hat and a shotgun” for the Governor to deal with Native tax issues, when the US Government can code name the most sought after terrorist of the present with a name undeserving of a terrorist identity—Geronimo—that’s racism, alive and still affecting our well being today.

One of our Haudenosaunee leaders said in Grand Council a few years back that we Oñgwehoñwe unconsciously seek the “approval of the oppressor.” That’s what colonizing can do, if you let it. It’s mind-boggling to think how often we, as contemporary Haudenosaunee people must filter what we hear, learn, read, and put it into our perspective, into our way of living as we continue about our daily lives. We have become great jugglers and balancers. It doesn’t change who we are.

NOON supporters in New York City for the Onondaga
hearing of their Land Rights Action at the US Second
Circuit Court of Appeals on November 2, 2012. Photo:
Andrew Courtney

Since the filing of our land rights case on March 11, 2005, we’ve experienced ups and downs as our case moved through the courts and appeals system. We have lost people who have stood with us, while others have risen to stand with us now. We knew this US Court system is foreign to us, that it is riddled with antiquated laws, yet we held our heads high, stood proud and tried to reach for that plateau of truth, and we were rejected time and again. We were hopeful, bolstered by stacks of historical evidence in support of our case, by a thorough legal team, by our active Neighbors. We knew decisions from other Haudenosaunee cases would have implications on ours. Our cases went separately, which was not the original intent.

In researching evidence I found an explosive expose, “Like a Loaded Weapon – The Rehnquist Court, Indian Rights and the Legal History of Racism in America” by Robert A. Williams, Jr. I also read Sonia Sotomayor’s My Beloved America, hoping to gain insight into her life as a Puerto Rican woman and her rise to the bench in the highest court in the land. It was welcome news to me to learn Sotomayor had not participated in the decision to deny our land rights case.

One of our friends from NOON sent a quote last week from the Abolitionist Frederick Douglass in response to the Dred Scott Decision more than a century ago. It reads “The Supreme Court of the United States is not the only power in this world. It is very great, but the Supreme Court of the Almighty is greater.” Do gis. Justice has been delayed, but as long as those who carry on the truth stand strong in the face of adversity, Justice cannot be denied.

Wendy is a Beaver Clanmother of the Onondaga Nation.