Rejected by US courts, Onondaga Nation take centuries-old land rights case to international panel

Sep 30, 2023, 7:17 AM

Joe Heath, general counsel for the Onondaga Nation, walks into the Nation's Longhouse for a meeting...

Joe Heath, general counsel for the Onondaga Nation, walks into the Nation's Longhouse for a meeting, Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023, on the Onondaga Nation territory in central New York. (AP Photo/Lauren Petracca)

(AP Photo/Lauren Petracca)

ONONDAGA NATION TERRITORY (AP) — The Onondaga Nation has protested for centuries that illegal land grabs shrank its territory from what was once thousands of square miles in upstate New York to a relatively paltry patch of land south of Syracuse.

It took its case to President George Washington, to Congress and, more recently, to a U.S. court.

All failed.

So now the nation is presenting its case to an international panel. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights recently allowed the Onondagas to pursue claims their land was taken unjustly by New York state, providing a unique venue for a land rights case against the United States by a Native American nation.

The U.S. government is not expected to abide by any opinion by the commission, which is part of the Organization of American States, a pro-democracy grouping of Western Hemisphere nations.

The Onondagas say they don’t want to force people from their homes. But they hope the novel case, which is being watched by other indigenous advocates, brings them closer to negotiations that might lead to the return of some land.

“We had to adapt to the coming of our white brother to our lands,” said Sid Hill, the Tadodaho, or chief, of the Onondaga Nation. “And we just feel that with the talk about justice and equality and all these issues, then why isn’t it there for us?”

Once the Onondaga Nation’s territory stretched nearly 4,000 square miles (10,000 square kilometers) in what is now New York.

Today, the federally recognized territory consists of 7,500 gently rolling acres (3,000 hectares) south of Syracuse. About 2,000 people live there, many in single-family homes on wooded lots. A tax-free smoke shop sits just off the interstate. A wooden longhouse used for meetings sits deeper in the territory, testimony to the residents’ adherence to traditional ways.

Many feel crowded on their reduced land. They can’t even fish the territory’s creek because decades of salt mining upstream muddied the waters.

“We have freedom, but it’s on a pinhead,” said Kent Lyons, who has lived on the territory since 1970.

The Onondaga’s case centers on a roughly 40-mile-wide (65-kilometer-wide) strip of land running down the center of upstate New York from Canada to Pennsylvania. They claim ancestral land was appropriated over decades by New York, starting in 1788, through deceitful maneuvers that violated treaties and federal law.

The 1788 sale of some 3,125 square miles (8,100 square kilometers) was agreed to by “wrong-headed people” who were unauthorized Onondaga negotiators, according to a letter to George Washington from the Onondagas and fellow members of the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, Confederacy.

The nation received $33,380, an annuity of $2,430, clothes worth $1,000 and 150 bushels of salt for their land over several decades. They lost wide expanses of land where they once hunted, fished and lived.

The Onondagas have effectively spent more than 200 years seeking recognition their land was unlawfully taken. They’re not seeking money as reparations, but land. Though Syracuse and crowded suburbs sit on much of the ancestral territory, nation attorney Joe Heath said there’s land that could be made available, such as state parcels.

“We’re not going to take land from people that don’t want to give it,” he said.

The nation filed a federal lawsuit in 2005 claiming the illegally acquired land was still theirs. A judge dismissed the claim five years later, ruling it came too late and would be disruptive to people settled on the land.

“So what about our disruption?” Hill asked recently on a break for a longhouse meeting.

After the court loss, the Onondaga Nation and the Haudenosaunee petitioned the commission in 2014, alleging violations of provisions of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man. Two claims were ruled admissible in May. Now the commission can consider the merits of whether the nation’s rights to equality under the law and judicial protection were violated.

Heath said this was the first land rights case admitted by the commission from a Native American nation against the U.S., though it has heard other Indigenous cases against the United States.

What will the U.S. do if the commission issues an opinion on merits favoring the Onondaga Nation?

If history is a guide, not much.

The U.S. is an influential member of the OAS. But human rights experts note that commission opinions are not considered legally binding to the U.S., which resists having international bodies telling it what to do.

“The State Department sends their professional lawyers, who are very talented, to make the arguments. And they participate. And then at the end of the day they’ll say, ‘But this is all non-binding, so we’re not going to follow it,’” said Paolo Carozza, a Notre Dame Law School professor and former commission president.

Notably, the U.S. took no action after the commission in 2002 found it failed to ensure the rights of two Western Shoshone Nation sisters in Nevada who argued they were denied use of their ancestral lands, according to attorneys.

The U.S. has already argued in response to the Onondaga petition that the commission has no business “second-guessing the considered decisions” of domestic courts.

A State Department spokesperson said in an email that the U.S. takes seriously petitions filed against it before the commission, calling that a “critical regional human rights body.”

In the end, the nation’s biggest gain in pursuing the case is likely to be attracting more attention to Onondaga’s 240-year-old argument. Carozza said a ruling in favor of the nation also would add “moral weight” to their cause.

“I think a recognition that the human rights of Onondaga and other tribal nations have been violated is a powerful recognition and can be utilized in numerous ways of advocacy, and potentially be used in the courts down the line,” said Matthew Campbell, deputy director of the Native American Rights Fund.

While an opinion could be years off, the Onondagas are used to waiting. Jeanne Shenandoah, who has spent decades working to reclaim nation lands, said they will never give up hope.

“We are here, and have never not been here. People don’t realize that,” she said outside the longhouse. “And that’s why that acknowledgement is so important.”

United States News

Associated Press

Judge drops felony charges against ex-elections official in Virginia

MANASSAS, Va. (AP) — A Virginia judge has dismissed felony charges against a former county elections official accused of misconduct in the 2020 election, a decision made after state prosecutors said a key witness changed his story. At the prosecutors’ request, the judge on Friday dismissed a felony charge of corrupt conduct and one for […]

1 hour ago

Philadelphia police officers outside of the Macy's in Center City after reports of an alleged stabb...

Associated Press

Man suspected of shoplifting stabs 2 security guards at Philadelphia store, killing 1

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A man who had tried to steal merchandise from a department store in Philadelphia returned 15 minutes later and stabbed two security guards, killing one and injuring the other, city police said. The attack at the Macy’s store occurred shortly after 11 a.m. Monday. Security guards saw the man attempting to steal […]

1 hour ago

Associated Press

Treasury creates new strike force as US and China pursue crackdown on illicit fentanyl trafficking

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Treasury Department on Monday announced a new strike force to help combat illicit fentanyl trafficking as the U.S. and China step up efforts to stop the movement of the powerful opioid and drug-making materials into the U.S. The Counter-Fentanyl Strike Force will bring together personnel and intelligence from throughout the Treasury […]

2 hours ago

Associated Press

Man suspected of killing 4, including a 1-year-old, at a Dallas home kills self during police chase

DALLAS (AP) — A man suspected of killing four people, including a 1-year-old boy, and injuring a 15-year-old girl in a shooting at a Dallas home fatally shot himself during a chase with law enforcement, police said Monday. Byron Carillo, 21, fled the home after the shooting late Sunday afternoon and then stole a vehicle, […]

3 hours ago

In this image provided by the U.S. Air Force, Airman 1st Class Jackson Ligon, 341st Missile Mainten...

Associated Press

The Air Force is expanding a review of cancers for service members who worked with nuclear missiles

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Air Force is expanding its study of whether service members who worked with nuclear missiles have had unusually high rates of cancer after a preliminary review determined that a deeper examination is needed. The initial study was launched in response to reports that many who served are now ill. The Air […]

3 hours ago

Associated Press

Former top Ohio utility regulator surrenders in $60 million bribery scheme linked to energy bill

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio’s former top utility regulator surrendered Monday in connection with a $60 million bribery scheme related to a legislative bailout for two Ohio nuclear power plants that has already resulted in a 20-year prison sentence for a former state House speaker. Sam Randazzo, former chair of the Public Utilities Commission of […]

4 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

(KTAR News Graphic)...

KTAR launches online holiday auction benefitting Boys & Girls Clubs of the Valley

KTAR is teaming up with The Boys & Girls Clubs of the Valley for a holiday auction benefitting thousands of Valley kids.

Follow @KTAR923...

Valley residents should be mindful of plumbing ahead of holidays

With Halloween in the rear-view and more holidays coming up, Day & Night recommends that Valley residents prepare accordingly.



Importance of AC maintenance after Arizona’s excruciating heat wave

An air conditioning unit in Phoenix is vital to living a comfortable life inside, away from triple-digit heat.

Rejected by US courts, Onondaga Nation take centuries-old land rights case to international panel