Claim Denied

Supreme Court declines to hear an appeal of the Onondaga Nation’s land claim suit

Members of the Onondaga Nation spent the past few months presenting the Two Row Wampum Renewal Campaign, reminding people of the promises Europeans made when they arrived here 400 years ago. Last week, they learned, when the Supreme Court announced it declined to hear an appeal of the Onondaga Nation’s land claim suit, that the country’s highest court has no intention of honoring the centuries-old treaties.

“I’m disappointed. I was hopeful the Supreme Court would take our case and was hoping for the opportunity for the public in Washington and beyond to hear about it and get support for the indigenous,” said Wendy Gonyea, an Onondaga Nation clan mother.

In its Tuesday, Oct. 15, announcement of the dismissal, the Supreme Court said the Onondagas waited too long “between a historical injustice and the present day” to file a claim and said a ruling favoring the Onondaga would be “disruptive.”

Those were the same reasons given in the dismissal of land claim suits by the Cayuga and Oneida nations.
The Onondaga Nation filed its lawsuit in March 2005, arguing that New York illegally took 4,000 square miles in 11 counties through treaties in 1784, 1789 and 1794. The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed that case in 2012; the Supreme Court’s decision rejected a petition to review that decision.

The Onondagas never intended to evict people from their land, but continue to seek acknowledgment that the region developed on ancient Haudenosaunee land and that New York illegally acquired the land. It also sought a seat at the table in plans to clean up Onondaga Lake and in other environmental projects.

“The Onondaga people 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,” reads the opening paragraph of the suit. “The people are one with the land and consider themselves stewards of it. It is the duty of the Nation’s leaders to work for a healing of this land, to protect it and to pass it on to future generations.”

Although the decision ends the Onondagas’ lawsuit in U.S. courts, Joe Heath, the Onondagas’ attorney, said the Nation might file a challenge with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. That would have to be filed within six months, Heath said.

He is unaware of any successful Native American land claim since before the 2005 Sherrill vs. Oneida ruling. But in 2002, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found that U.S. law on Indian land is discriminatory and violates human rights. That case involved the Western Shoshone.

“The sense is from Taddadaho {Sid Hill, spiritual leader} is that it’s a relief we’re done with this system and we can now move on to what we hope will be a fair hearing,” Heath said. “There is no justice for Indian nations in U.S. courts.”

Heath and Onondaga leaders point to the 15th-century Doctrine of Discovery, which originated with papal letters, as justifying the taking of land by Christians from non-Christians. The concept has been applied to land ownership in U.S. law since 1823.

Gonyea hopes an international court will rule in the Onondagas’ favor. “I still feel somewhere along the line the U.S. has to own up to the injustices of the indigenous,” she said. “It’s great they finally owned up to slavery, and it’s great they finally have civil rights laws. Why is it so hard for Native Americans to get  justice?”

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