SYRACUSE, N.Y. - Earlier this year, it was possible to say that certain
things were beginning to look up for the Haudensaunee in upstate New York.
Land rights litigation had progressed slowly but successfully through the
lower federal courts and, for the nations that chose gaming, land
acquisition and spin-off business growth were starting to pay dividends.
Then came the Supreme Court's City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of
New York decision.
In an instant, inherent Indian sovereignty was sent reeling with a hard
punch to the gut.
In response to this and other threats to Haudenosaunee society, the Center
for Indigenous Law, Governance and Citizenship at the Syracuse University
College of Law held a conference to discuss such threats and ways to
Center Director Robert Odawi Porter, Seneca, moderated the Nov. 19 event,
which he called a "beginning point" for future gatherings.
"We're seeking to create a forum for discussion of issues," Porter said.
"We're in a siege environment. The intensity of threats is increasing."
Chief James Ransom of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council characterized the
current crises facing the Haudenosaunee nations in the context of five
centuries of post-contact survival.
"We've been under siege for the last 500 years over the same issues we
faced today," Ransom said.
Divisions within the Mohawk nation have resulted in competing visions for
the future. Ransom noted that while "it's easy to be a critic," positive
debate and discussion about the myriad issues facing tribal members - the
loss of language, health care questions and environmental issues among them
- seem harder to come by.
"It's OK to disagree," he said. "But offer a different solution: positive
criticism. We need to be more responsible for determining our own future
... The key is relationships within our communities. We must build strength
Brian Patterson, member of the Oneida Men's Council, observed issues
challenging the Haudenosaunee "appear to go in cycles" like the seasons.
"Today, the current cycle seems to be a backlash against our civil rights,"
Patterson said. "Now that we are building an economic base, extremists cry
to push us back to reliance, weakness." (Indian Country Today is owned by
Four Directions Media, an enterprise of the Oneida Indian Nation.)
Patterson touched on the source of a significant division between the
various Haudenosaunee nations - gaming. The Mohawk, Oneida and Seneca
nations all operate Class III gaming facilities, though not without varying
degrees of opposition within their respective communities. The Cayuga
Nation, divided internally over participation in gaming, recently closed
its two small Class II operations. The Onondaga and Tuscarora nations
remain opposed to gaming.
"The Oneidas chose to take advantage of IGRA to rebuild," Patterson said.
"This is what self-determination is all about. Tribes can choose their own
path, but [should] respect the rights of others to take a [different]
Threats to the Haudenosaunee in New York come from three areas, Patterson
said. One is anti-sovereignty groups who use "hate and fear-mongering" to
create the image of economically successful Indian nations as threatening.
Another comes from Albany politicians, whose "willful ignorance of tribal
contributions" is complemented by efforts to force tribal concessions in
the collection of sales taxes and submission to local regulation and the
use of "out-of-state" tribes to force land claim concessions.
The third source of threats comes from the federal government, Patterson
said. These include an impossible burden of proof for tribes seeking
recognition, a backlash against Indian gaming, interference in tribal
affairs by the National Labor Relations Board and a shift in the courts,
particularly the Supreme Court.
"We never have and never will surrender as a sovereign people," Patterson
Richard Nephew, council chairman of the Seneca Nation of Indians, said that
his people have been "in retreat for many years - we have nothing more to
give - we're willing to fight." He observed that the Seneca Nation, known
for its entrepreneurial spirit, faces a fundamental hypocrisy from Albany.
"If we were a corporation, we'd get tax breaks and cheap power," Nephew
said. "How can you create Empire Zones and ignore nations that have been
"We'd like to end this conflict," Nephew insisted, adding that tribal unity
is critical in facing down threats from the outside.
"Don't forget our common heritage and culture - we're endangered if we
forget it," Nephew said. "We need to reach out to each other."
Haudenosaunee governments in Canada also face considerable pressure from
that nation's federal government. Angie Barnes, grand chief of the elected
Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, opined that the contemporary siege is "more
insidious than in the past." As an example, she cited the location of a
Canadian customs checkpoint within the northern part of Akwesasne
Barnes also noted that divisions within the greater Mohawk community hurt
the people as a whole.
"Elected councils are seen as repressors of traditional councils," she
said. "We have to discuss this relationship. The original Haudenosaunee
Confederacy likely took decades to sort out [when it was first formed]. We
need to do this again [through] discussion on all the territories."
"We need our own lawyers, doctors, teachers and managers to make us
comfortable with making our own decisions," Barnes said.
Donald Maracle, chief of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, said that the
people of the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory have "no appetite" for further
surrender of their property. They face however, being "ping-ponged" back
and forth between federal and provincial governments who lack the
"political will to take remedies for [their] breach of fiduciary duties" to
"The policy framework is totally controlled," Maracle said. "We are at a
disadvantage. We're boxed in by their policies. The system is broken and
needs to be fixed."
Chief Randy Phillips of the Oneida Nation of the Thames' elected council
echoed earlier themes of unity in the face of continued threats to
sovereignty and identity. He used "boxes" as a metaphor for the divisions
within and among tribes. He said that communities need unity to get rid of
the boxes that separate the various Haudenosaunee nations and communities.
"We talk about coming together," Phillips said. "We're not in separate
boxes, but one box."