Onondaga Nation Presses Forward
with Land Rights Action

Onondaga Tadadaho (spiritual leader) Sid Hill. Photo: Li-Hua Lan

The Onondaga Nation's Land Rights Action (LRA) seeks a healing of the environment and among the peoples of this region. The legal basis for the Onondagas' LRA, and land claims by other Haudenosaunee nations, is well-founded in treaties with the US federal government, extensive documentation of repeated unlawful land takings by NYS, and in earlier federal court findings.

Since the LRA filing, two court decisions have pushed the Onondagas to amend their original complaint. In late March, the US Supreme Court ruled against Oneida Nation immunity from taxation on treaty lands they had purchased in the Town of Sherrill, NY. This was based on "laches," meaning the Oneidas waited too long (200 years) to claim unlawful land takings in court.

This ruling was taken even further, in late June, when the 2nd Circuit Appeals Court dismissed the Cayuga land claim, ignoring an extensively documented 2001 finding by a US District Court judge that the Cayuga Nation (under circumstances similar to those of the Oneidas and Onondagas) was NOT responsible for the delay in filing. The Circuit Court cited laches and reversed the lower court's award to the Cayugas based on the Sherrill precedent.

In response to these alarming court decisions, the Onondaga Nation amended its LRA on August 1, 2005. They maintained their rights to their ancestral lands, and stated that "laches" was not applicable because the Courts had not been open to them until 1985. The following excerpt of the press release describes the LRA amendment.

The Onondaga Nation repeated its resolve to find a just resolution of its historic land rights action today, maintaining their rights to their historic territory while repeating that their suit will not result in evictions of their neighbors in Central New York.

"The Onondaga Nation wants this action resolved in a way that preserves, not disrupts, the social fabric of our Nation as well as that of our neighbors," said Sidney Hill, Tadodaho (Spiritual Leader), Onondaga Nation Council of Chiefs. "We will not settle for methods used to resolve other Native American nations' law suits. We do not want to open or operate casinos, as casinos have not resolved any of these matters for our people. The State has used them to attempt to divide us."

Attorney Joseph Heath, General Counsel for the Onondaga Nation, said that recent court rulings regarding Oneida and Cayuga lands do not alter the legal strength of the Onondaga suit. The Supreme Court ruled in 1985 that Indian land rights cases in New York State were valid, and this decision has not been changed:
o Although the federal Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit recently ruled that the Cayuga Nation's claim for damages and other relief was not valid because of laches, or a delay in asserting the claim, it is inconceivable that any Indian nation could have sued New York State two hundred years ago.

The US Supreme Court's Sherrill decision in March did not reject the Oneida land claims but only said that the Oneida Nation, in buying back land in their historic territory, could not take that land off the property tax rolls of municipalities and counties.

For more than 180 years there was no court open to the Onondaga Nation where it could assert its land rights and seek justice," explained Robert Coulter, lead attorney for the Onondaga in their land rights action. "It is justice that has been delayed, and it is not the fault of the Onondaga Nation or any of the Indian Nations."

The Nation's attorneys filed an amended complaint today, adding statements to the Complaint that the Nation has not delayed in taking action on its land rights. The Amended Complaint points out that it was not legally possible for Indian nations to file such lawsuits until 1974 at the earliest. Laches cannot be used against a party that did not have access to the courts to make their claim; for New York State to use laches as a defense, it needs to show how it was harmed by the passage of time. In reality, the state has benefited tremendously all these years from its original, illegal taking of the lands.

At the heart of all of these suits," Hill added, "is the search for justice. In taking our land from us, New York State broke federal law. All of us involved should consider the time that has passed since these actions, but these wrongs must not be ignored or dismissed out of hand. Everyone in Central New York would benefit from correcting these injustices so we can live in peace."

The Onondaga land rights action names Honeywell, Trigen, Clark Concrete Company, Valley Realty, and Hanson Aggregates as defendants in the suit for the environmental damage they have done to Central New York. The havoc that these and other corporations have inflicted on the land fuels the Nation's desire for justice.

"We intend to use our rights to this land as a legal and moral force for the environment and the Earth," said Hill. "We want to see polluted areas cleaned up and we want to protect those areas not yet defiled for generations to come. All people of Central New York can benefit from this action - our land and health have been disregarded by the Albany politicians for far too long."