Last month, the Supreme Court rejected the final appeal in Onondaga Nation v. State of New York, a land claim case that has been in the courts for eight years. The case focuses on Onondaga Lake and surrounding lands in what is now upstate New York. Prior to European settlement, the shores of Onondaga Lake marked a spot of deep historical, spiritual and cultural connection for the Haudenosaunee, a confederation of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca nations that lived in the region (a sixth nation, Tuscarora, joined in 1720). Today, the lake is a Superfund site divided into nine subsections that address the nearly 50 pollutants in the water, lake bottom and fish.
The state of New York took land from the Haudenosaunee in a series of five seizures in the 18th and 19th centuries in clear violation of federal law. Yet, in 2010, a U.S. District Court of New York ruled that the Onondaga Nation’s claim was Onondaga Nation v. State of New York was dismissed because, according to New York’s Northern District Court, “the claim would … undermine and disrupt settler land ownership and expectations.” The Onondaga appealed and were denied. That denial was upheld by the Supreme Court last month.
“New York let that lake become some of the most polluted waters,” says Matthew L.M. Fletcher, who heads the Indigenous Law and Policy Center at Michigan State University’s College of Law. “The Onondaga want a say in how the cleanup effort moves forward, particularly because the body of water is of upmost significance to the nation, and to the Haudenosaunee as a whole. The case is largely about being able to have the same interactions with the water that the Onondaga have always had, prior to confiscation.”
To appreciate the depth of the Onondaga’s claim, you have to go back to 18th century federal law. In 1790, the first United States Congress passed what’s now called the Nonintercourse Act which prevents any individual, group of people or state from purchasing or otherwise taking possession of Native land without the explicit consent of the federal government. Three years later, the Haudenosaunee and the U.S. entered into a treaty, formally establishing a government-to-government relationship. The Canandaigua Treaty, as it’s called, was entered into 219 years ago Monday.
Nevertheless, several states—including New York—took or purchased Native lands without federal authority. Oftentimes, the sale of Native land was negotiated by individuals who claimed to represent Native nations, but did not. Such negotiations and agreements would have had to have been ratified by the Native nations themselves, but they were not. That’s how Onondaga Lake, and the land that surrounds it was taken in bits by the state of New York.
The federal government had the ability—and legal obligation—to intervene but didn’t. “The federal government has been incredibly negligent in every conceivable way when it comes to Indian lands in these areas,” says Fletcher.
While the Haudenosaunee, which is better known as the Iroquois Confederacy, protested the state of New York’s land grab, it lacked a legal venue in which to voice the complaint. That’s because courts barred Natives from even bringing land claims to court until 1974. That was the year the Supreme Court reversed a 2nd Circuit ruling, and along with it, the longstanding practice of dismissing Native land claims. Since then, the Haudenosaunee have filed several claims. Among them is Onondaga Nation v. State of New York.
New York hasn’t denied that it took these lands and the lake in violation of federal law, but it has also taken protection knowing that the federal government never remedied the situation. The Onondaga filed suit in 2005, but a new twist in Indian Law had already spelled disaster for the nation.
That year, in a case involving the Oneida, the Supreme Court dealt a blow to all Native nations by using a legal doctrine that dismisses nations’ ability to enforce treaty rights because they waited to long. Once land claim suits were allowed, Native nations had to work to acquire resources, and attorneys especially, to bring those claims forward.
“The courts have failed miserably for Indian nations in the last eight years, turning everything on its head,” says Joseph J. Heath, general counsel for the Ononodaga Nation.
But the Onondaga are not giving up. The nation has identified three international venues—the Organization of Americans State’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, as well as two United Nations committees—where the case can move next. The obstacle is that a decision from one of those bodies would not necessarily bind the U.S. or the state of New York to do right. But, says Heath, “The moral victory would help towards working on a resolution.”
That moral victory, if attained, would be one hundreds of years in the making.