Can the Onondagas Find Justice in Our Courts?

This historical marker (Frenchman’s Island is on Oneida Lake) alludes to the bloody legacy of the Van Schaick Expedition and then Sullivan-Clinton Campaign designed to break the back of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy to make way for European-American colonization.
Photo: Phil Arnold

By Andy Mager

On October 11 the Onondaga Nation will begin to argue their historic Land Rights Action in Albany Federal District Court. This is only the latest stage in the Onondaga's centuries-long effort to maintain their culture and way of life. Since European colonization began, the balance of power shifted significantly from the Onondagas and their fellow Haudenosaunee being the dominant forces in what is now New York State to the current situation.

They enter the courtroom with hesitation, knowing that fairness in that system, particularly toward Native people, has been in very limited supply. Decades of deliberation occurred before the Onondagas decided to enter this arena following the 1974 Supreme Court decision that opened up the federal courts to such cases. An international judicial system would be more appropriate since the dispute involves two sovereign nations.

The Onondagas are confident that history and justice are on their side if only the courts would objectively examine the issues. The Onondagas will argue that nearly all their 3,000 square miles of territory was taken illegally through a series of so called "treaties" beginning in 1788.

New York State, the principle defendant in the case, doesn't dispute the history, but instead argues that the case should be dismissed because the Onondagas have waited too long to seek justice and that any remedy would be "disruptive." Unfortunately these are the issues which will be before the court in October.

While this is the first time the Onondagas have gone to court, they have been preceded by fellow Haudenosaunee nations: the Oneidas, Cayugas and Senecas, each of which have their own long, complicated stories. In the court of public opinion, this history has been reviewed on many occasions over the past several centuries.

Everett Report of 1922
One of the most thorough investigations was undertaken by the New York State Indian Commission (1919-1922) whose purpose was to investigate the status of Indian welfare and land rights in New York State. Republican Assemblyman Edward Everett of St. Lawrence County chaired the commission.

Mr. Everett took his mandate seriously and engaged in significant historical research in addition to holding hearings on the various Native American territories throughout the state.

He concluded, "I hold that the treaty of 1784 recognized the Indians of the State of New York as being a nation and entitled to be treated as such and that the establishing of their territorial boundary lines at that time settled the question of the territory occupied and possessed by them and that in order to divest them of any of this land, an instrument with equal force and authority would have to be used. I fail to find anything of that kind since the date of 1784."

Everett's conclusions were so controversial that none of the other commission members would sign the final report. When it was presented to the New York State legislature on March 17, 1922 it was rejected for filing. The state attempted to distort history by suppressing this report and it would likely have been completely wiped off the historical record if it weren't for the commission stenographer. Lulu Stillman recognized their historical significance and held onto these documents, releasing them in 1971 during an attempted land transfer between New York State and the Akwesasne Mohawks.

Courts and Communities
Court decisions are not independent of the dialogues and debates which occur in the communities of which they are a part. For nearly seven years, the Peace Council's Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation (NOON) project has worked persistently to share the true history of the Onondaga and to call on our community to live up to our highest values. That work has made a positive difference in Central New York. It is now time to extend these efforts to Albany. As peacemakers and justice seekers we can do no less.

Support Justice for Onondaga and Environmental Cleanup
Courtrooms overflowing with supporters send a clear and unmistakable message to judges, elected officials and the general public. There are many ways you can participate:

come to Albany for the October 11 hearing (buses will be available from the Syracuse area)

attend support gatherings in your community - they are currently scheduled for Syracuse, Binghamton and Albany. Contact us for help in organizing your own

sign NOON's "Pledge of Support for the Onondaga People"

write letters to the editor of local newspapers expressing support

invite NOON to present to an organization to which you belong

join NOON's organizing efforts to support justice and environmental cleanup

Learn more
Contact NOON at 315-472-5478, Valuable information is available at and at the Onondaga Nation website

Andy is a Peace Council staffer who has been part of NOON since its founding in 2000.