Trust Decision: Ignoring history and common sense

By Doug George-Kanentiio
News From Indian Country 4-08

The February 22 decision by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to place 13,000 acres of land in central New York in “trust” for the Oneida Nation is not a cause for celebration but alarm.

If there is one undeniable truth in Iroquois-US relations it is this: the Americans will do what they can to eradicate the Haudenosaunee as a distinct people. Whether this means eclipsing our humanity by portraying us as sub-human savages, forcibly removing us from our ancestral lands or destroying our culture by imposing alien values on our children the process of obliteration continues.

We have opposed this tactic with whatever means possible even if it required us to pick up arms. We have fought in the courts and taken to the streets, created alternative schools, developed language retention programs, organized our own media. All of this to preserve and protect our identity as onkwehonwe. We have sent our representatives throughout the world carrying messages of defiance and hope.

As long as we held together we have been able to delay what some would say is the inevitable loss of our heritage, but the miracle is that we still have the most vital elements of our culture intact. We might be stronger still if we had not had to struggle with our own kin, those who saw immediate, personal gain as preferable to the seven generations principle which is supposed to be the moral and legal foundation of our lives.

The latest tactic used by the U.S. to divorce us from the earth is to place our ancestral territory into “trust.” This is a new concept for the Iroquois since we now hold title to our lands as a collective. We never ceded this vital position to the U.S. or Canada. We refused to go along or go away which in turn compelled the Americans to create colonial entities designed to undermine the Confederacy and affect the concessions the U.S. needed to carry out its plans.

Our people were warned, clearly and repeatedly beginning with Skaniateriio (Handsome Lake) that we would be destroyed if we became addicted to alcohol and gambling; that we would sacrifice all we owned to sustain these two highly addictive things. The late Atotaho Leon Shenandoah was equally emphatic about this, pointing out that our own people would bring about the end of the Haudenosaunee.

Specifically, what is “trust?” It means we give up our territory to the U.S. which then allows us to live on these reserved lands until it rules otherwise. What the U.S. “gives” us is the peculiar thing called Indian rights, a condition of existence defined by the Americans according to the Christian doctrines of discovery.

Federal trust comes at an enormous cost. Trust was in place when the U.S. stole tens of millions of acres of Native land after it passed the Dawes Act of 1887. The legislation designed to “help” Indians in fact cost us 90,000,000 acres of land, made 90,000 Natives homeless, undermined Native governments and shattered thousands of families.

Federal trust? Has anyone at the St. Regis Tribe, the Oneida Nation or the Cayugas bothered to call Eloise Cobell, the courageous Blackfoot woman who challenged the U.S. on behalf of 500,000 Indians? Her suit maintained the federal government has failed to account for as much as $40,000,000,000 in Native funds involving resources from 11,000,000 acres of “trust” land. See for the complete story.

Federal trust? We didn’t even have trust and yet lost 10,000 acres of the Allegany territory for the Kinzua Dam, a quarter of Tuscarora’s land for the Niagara Falls reservoir and Akwesasne’s waterfront during the Seaway. Would not “trust” make us even more vulnerable to these kinds of thefts?

Does not “trust” mean whatever commerce takes place on such land is then subject to pay all federal taxes? And to pay those state taxes as ruled applicable by the US courts? In the west Native businesses have no exemption from state assessments on tobacco and fuel, a situation which will certainly apply here on these new trust lands.

The reason “trust” status was sought in the first place was to protect the casinos. No arguments for “trust” mentioned culture, the earth, our animal relatives or the plant life. Those who are its advocates care nothing for the natural – they define existence by monetary standards only. It calls into question our most sacred teachings and why we are here as human beings.

We should all be concerned about ceding lands into trust because it will be the only way lost territory will be returned to us. It is in contrast to the Mohawk land reclamation’s of the past generation. Trust is what happens when Iroquois leaders don’t know their history or lack a background in our laws and customs. This lack of spiritual and intellectual balance means that concessions over land and sovereignty are now far too easy to make.