Tentative Hope Permeates Onondaga Land Rights Hearing
by Carole Resnick

Onondagas and supporters board the bus to
Albany in the darkness outside the Onondaga
Nation arena. Photo: Andy Mager

March 11, 2005 was the historic day when the Onondaga Nation filed a Land Rights Action against New York State, Onondaga County, the city of Syracuse and several major corporate polluters. (For information about the land rights action, see www.peacecouncil.net/noon.)  October 11, 2007 marked the next historic milestone in the process, when the Onondagas were heard for the first time in court.

At shortly after 6 am that morning two busloads of people left the Onondaga Nation to travel to US District Court in Albany to witness this event.  Just outside of Utica, we were greeted by a Thruway-side banner held by a couple of Utica-area supporters. The group was a beautiful mixture of Onondaga people and supporters from the Syracuse Peace Council/Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation (NOON) and others in the Central NY community.  More came by car. 

We arrived to find Albany-area supporters standing outside of the courthouse with signs of support.  When we all finally had entered the courtroom (which we were told held 300), every seat was full and many were standing.  The depth of meaning in the moment was palpable.  It was the power of people coming together with deep intention, a power which does not translate easily into words. 

The Legal Situation
Supporters from NOON and elsewhere demonstrate their support for Onondaga Land Rights outside Federal Court in Albany on October 11, 2007. Several dozen people had to stand in the courtroom after the estimated 300 seats were filled. Photo: Katie Nadeau
We listened as attorneys for New York State argued that the case be dismissed because too much time had passed between the taking of Onondaga land in violation of treaties and the filing of this court action.  Onondaga Nation attorney Tim Coulter noted that, “The Onondaga Nation was excluded from federal and state courts for 185 years.  The question is whether it will ever be able to bring its land rights case to the courts....The law wasn’t changed to permit bringing an action like this until, at the earliest, 1974.  But the Supreme Court didn’t decide these actions were viable until 1985.” 

As the arguments were presented we learned that for the “excessive” passage of time to be an issue, the outcome of the case would have to be disruptive or “possessory.”  In other words, if the resolution of the case does not disrupt or harm the affected communities, the passage of time is not a legally relevant issue. 

In response to Judge Lawrence Kahn’s repeated inquiries about what the Onondaga hoped to gain if the court granted a “declaratory judgment” giving them title to the land, attorney Tim Coulter indicated that the judgment they are seeking should be written creatively, in the spirit of their desire to receive acknowledgement of the wrong that was done and the healing that is needed, without eviction of any current landholders. When the NYS attorneys tried to discount this response as an evasion of a hidden agenda, the judge interjected with his observation that the Onondaga are “trying to find justice.”  The impact of these words resounded through the courtroom, although the respectful silence was never broken.

The arguments presented in court addressed only the state’s motion for dismissal, and it is not known when the judge will release his findings.  The hour in court was a very brief moment after the decades of preparation that brought us all there, and anti-climatic in that sense.  As we filed out of the courtroom and milled around talking in the hallway there was a feeling in the group that said “Is that all?” 

Sharing Time and Food
It was indeed all for this first appearance in court, but it wasn’t nearly all for the time shared by the Onondaga and their supporters.  The hospitality which began with breakfast at the Onondaga Nation Arena (Tsha’Hoñ’noñyeñ’dakhwa’, or “Where they play games”), followed by bus transportation at no cost, complete with snacks and sandwiches to make sure that no one was hungry before the late lunch we shared together, continued. 

Andrew Phillips and Lindsay Speer of NOON listen to the lawyers for the Onondaga Nation report on the court proceedings over lunch at the Mohawk community Kanatsiohareke. Photo: Katie Nadeau

We drove from Albany to lunch at Kanatsiohareke (pronounced Ga nah jo ha le ge), a Mohawk community since 1993, founded by Tom Porter.  There we sat together in a large dining room, filled with food and people.  Lunch was generously offered to us as guests of the Onondaga Nation, and was warming both to the belly and to the heart.  As the meal neared its close the attorneys representing the Nation stood up to speak about what had transpired and to answer questions.  Tim Coulter, Curtis Berkey and Joe Heath used lawyerly caution in avoiding any undue optimism or assumptions about what the outcome might be.  But it was clear that they were feeling really good.  This was a day very long awaited, and it had gone well. 

Many of us have been on the bus before – to Albany, New York City, Washington, DC.  We have marched in the street and sat in the courtroom.  But rarely have we received the direct feedback that we heard over dessert that afternoon.  The fact that we had filled the courtroom with a diverse group of people in support of the Onondaga Nation was critical in supporting the message that this case is not “disruptive or possessory.” 

Our presence and the long standing activities of NOON established and verified the statement made by the Onondaga in the introduction to the legal action filed on 3/11/05 that “The Onondaga Nation hopes to bring about a healing between the Onondaga people and others who live in this area that has been the homeland of the Onondaga people since the dawn of time.  The Onondagas have a unique spiritual, cultural and historic relationship with this land which bears no resemblance to legal concepts of ownership, possession or other legal rights.  The Nation intends that this suit may be a step toward reconciliation, lasting justice, peace and respect among all who inhabit this region.”

NOON’s ongoing educational and advocacy work continues. Please consider joining the effort – contact Andy at 472-5478, noon@peacecouncil.net.

Carole was a founding member of NOON, has been an SPC member for several decades and is a long time friend and supporter of the Onondaga Nation.