Onondaga Nation Takes Land Fight to International Panel

Case seeks return of some New York territory sold in 1788, a claim once rejected by President Washington
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Sep 30, 2023 12:50 PM CDT
Onondaga Nation Takes New York Land Fight to OAS
Athletes on the Onondaga RedHawks Lacrosse team warm up in the Onondaga Nation Arena in central New York on Aug. 3.   (AP Photo/Lauren Petracca)

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 US court. All attempts failed. So now the nation is presenting its case to an international panel, the AP reports. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights recently allowed the Onondagas to pursue claims that their land was taken unjustly by New York State, providing a unique venue for a land rights case against the US by a Native American nation.

Experts don't expect the US government 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, though the US was a founding member. 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 in what is now New York. Today, the federally recognized territory consists of 7,500 gently rolling acres 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 tradition. 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, per the AP. "We have freedom, but it's on a pinhead," said Kent Lyons, who has lived on the territory since 1970.

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The nation received $33,380, an annuity of $2,430, clothes worth $1,000, and 150 bushels of salt for the 1788 sale of some 3,125 acres—wide expanses of land where its people had hunted, fished, and lived. The Onondagas are not seeking money as reparations but land. Though Syracuse and suburbs sit on much of the territory, a nation attorney 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," Joe Heath said. The US has argued that the commission has no business "second-guessing the considered decisions" of its courts. Jeanne Shenandoah said the Onondagas will not give up hope. "We are here, and have never not been here. People don't realize that," she said at the longhouse. "And that's why that acknowledgement is so important."

(More tribal rights stories.)

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