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Onondaga land claim argued in federal court

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By Michael Hill -- Associated Press

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - A lawyer advocating the Onondaga Nation's claim to a massive swath of land running down the middle of New York state assured a federal judge Oct. 11 that the tribe does not intend to evict anyone, but wants to wipe away a historic stain.

That contention was countered by Assistant Attorney General David Roberts, who argued the 4,000-square-mile land claim by the Onondaga Nation, if successful, could set the stage for evictions in the future. Roberts made the argument as he tried to convince U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Kahn to dismiss the tribe's 2005 lawsuit.

''It's inherently disruptive,'' Roberts said.

More than 100 Onondagas and their supporters overfilled the courtroom to hear the arguments. Dozens of Onondagas, many in traditional clothing, took the three-hour bus ride from their small reservation south of Syracuse to listen, and nodded when lawyer Robert ''Tim'' Coulter argued that a judgment in their favor would erase an injustice dating to when New York illegally took their land centuries ago.

''The nation itself has been thrown off its land and it doesn't want to do that to anyone else,'' said Coulter, who heads the Indian Law Resource Center.

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The tribe wants a judgment from the court that a swath of land up to 40 miles wide running north to south from the St. Lawrence River to the Pennsylvania state line belongs to them. The land includes the cities of Binghamton, Oswego, Syracuse and Watertown and is home to roughly 875,000 people.

Tribal leaders have said they do not want monetary damages and insist they do not want to evict the 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. Coulter echoed this in court when he told Kahn they want land title only in a ''grander, more abstract'' sense.

Kahn repeatedly asked Coulter how the court could issue a judgment in the tribe's favor without causing disruption. ''You're asking the court to use its creativity,'' Kahn said. Coulter said the court could issue an order including safeguards for residents.

In asking Kahn to dismiss the case, Roberts said the Iroquois tribe waited too long to sue, citing similar tribal lawsuits that were dismissed in other courts, and that the state is immune from such a suit in federal court.

The tribe argues that 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. New York is the lead defendant in a lawsuit that also names the city of Syracuse and a number of local companies.

The Onondagas 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.

''It's important for the history finally to be redressed for our ancestors,'' said Wendy Gonyea, an Onondaga who traveled from Onondaga land for the arguments, ''that all the suffering, all the land loss, all the dirty deals will finally be remedied.''