Onondaga land claim argued in federal court

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By Michael Hill
Albany, New York (AP) 10-07

Oren Lyons of the Onondaga Council of Chiefs outside the federal courthouse in Albany, N.Y., after arguments were heard in the Nation's land claim case against New York state.

AP Photo by Mike Groll

The Onondaga Nation’s claim to 4,000 square miles of land running down the middle of the state and comprising some of the largest cities in upstate New York was argued in court during October.

The central New York tribe filed claim in 2005 to a swath of land up to 40 miles wide running north to south from the St. Lawrence River to the Pennsylvania state line. They argue that New York state illegally took the land from them centuries ago.

New York, among other things, claims the Iroquois tribe waited to long to sue. The state asked U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Kahn to dismiss the claim, which includes the cities of Binghamton, Oswego, Syracuse and Watertown. The Onondagas are not seeking monetary damages and insist they do not want to evict the roughly 875,000 residents of the disputed area. They say they want to spur a cleanup of Onondaga Lake, a waterway sacred to the tribe, and other hazardous waste sites.

“There is no attempt to take people off their land and evict them,” tribal attorney Joseph Heath said on the eve of arguments. “Our case is about healing.”

Heath said that if tribal leaders get a judgment in their favor, they would hope to sit down with state officials to consider a range of options, such as a lease payment plan or a plan to help the Onondagas buy additional land from willing sellers.

While the Onondagas today maintain an 11-mile-square reservation south of Syracuse, they had been spread over much of what is now central New York centuries ago at the height of the Iroquois Confederacy.

The tribe claims the land – which they call their homeland “since the dawn of time” – was illegally taken by New York state through a series of five bogus treaties from 1788 through 1822.

The Onondaga say crucial treaties were signed by unauthorized representatives and that the land takings are in violation of the U.S. Constitution, the 1784 Treaty of Fort Stanwix and the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua.

Lawyers for the state cite a land claim by the Cayuga that was dismissed by a federal appeals court which found they waited too long to file. The U.S. Supreme Court let that decision stand.

New York also claims it is immune from the lawsuit under the Constitution unless the federal government joins as a plaintiff.

Heath said the tribe has had “promising” signs from federal officials, though they have yet to say whether they will sign on to the lawsuit.
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