The Supreme Court’s decision not to hear the Cayuga land claim case does a great injustice to the Cayuga Nation. The ruling lets stand an Appeals Court decision dismissing the Cayugas’ 25-year court battle and effectively ends their efforts to achieve some measure of justice in the federal courts for what all sides concede was the illegal taking of their lands by New York almost 200 years ago.
For most of the nearly two centuries since their lands were taken, the Cayugas were barred from court. Early state and federal law did not recognize Indian tribes as capable of bringing suit, and rules providing for federal court jurisdiction over Indian claims weren’t established until late in the 20th century.
Once allowed in the courtroom, the Cayugas worked for two decades to prove their case, and won a hard-fought judgment in a federal trial court that confirmed the illegal taking of their lands by New York and provided for a damages award of nearly $250 million. On appeal, however, that judgment was overturned based largely on the fact that so much time had gone by. This simply doesn’t square with most Americans’ notions of justice.
It also doesn’t seem to square with what the pre-eminent human rights authority in this hemisphere, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, has found to be the internationally protected rights of indigenous peoples.
In a case brought against the United States by Western Shoshone sisters Mary and Carrie Dann, the Inter-American Commission found that the United States’ denial of Western Shoshone land rights violated the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, an agreement that lays out the human rights obligations of the nations of the Americas.
The commission reviewed the way in which a U.S. Indian Claims Commission finding that the Western Shoshones had lost their land rights through the “gradual encroachment” of non-Indians was later used by the federal courts to bar the Western Shoshones from seeking a real adjudication of their continuing rights to their lands.
That process, the Inter-American Commission found, violated Western Shoshone rights to property, equal treatment under the law, and a fair trial. Similar findings issued earlier this year from the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which strongly urged the United States to reform its practices toward the Western Shoshones.
While international human rights law surely does not require that any particular remedy be afforded the Cayugas, it would seem to support at least their right to a fair adjudication of their land claim, which is based on federal laws and treaties. It is that right that the Supreme Court could have vindicated by establishing once and for all that – contrary to the Appeals Court ruling in their case – there is no delay-based bar to legal claims like those of the Cayugas.
There is no international human rights mechanism to award the Cayugas tangible redress for the great wrong that has been done to them, but there is a body competent to reach some fair resolution of their claims. Congress can and should consider how to justly resolve the Cayugas’ 200-year dispossession from their ancestral lands, and in doing so it should heed the principles laid out by the international community’s pre-eminent human rights authorities.
At a time when this country holds itself out as a model democracy, the federal courts appear to be dismantling the framework that protects the rights of Native peoples, who are among the poorest and most vulnerable members of society. This is a shameful reprise of some of the worst moments in the history of the United States and presents a challenge for all those who believe in equality and justice.
There is still a chance that the Supreme Court will weigh in to preserve the legal claims of Indian nations to their historic lands, but that will come too late for the Cayugas.
Instead, those who believe in human rights should press Congress to ensure that this country vindicates the promises made to the Cayugas and respects the human rights it is bound to protect, even after – especially after – 200 years.
<i>Alexandra Page is a staff attorney in the Washington, D.C., office of the Indian Law Resource Center. For more information, visit www.indianlaw.org or call (406) 449-2006.