The Onondaga Nation has taken its land rights case into the international arena.
On Tuesday, April 15, the Onondaga Nation filed a petition against the United States with the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in Washington, D.C. The petition accuses the U.S. of human rights violations by stealing 2.5 million acres of the Nation’s land since 1788 in what is now central New York state and seeks redress for the violation of the Onondaga people’s rights to property, equal treatment, and judicial protection.
The filing took place exactly six months after the U.S. Supreme Court denied the Onondaga Nation’s request for a review of a lower court’s dismissal of its land rights lawsuit. The high court’s refusal to examine the case and send it back to a lower court for a trial on its merits was the last stop on the Nation’s 10-year journey through the U.S legal system, meaning the Nation had exhausted all judicial venues in the country.
“The courts of the United States have failed to provide any remedy for this loss of land,” the petition says. “The United States domestic legal system’s denial of a remedy for violation of the Nation’s land rights and treaties is a violation of the Nation’s fundamental human rights protected by the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and other international human rights agreements.”
The Organization of American States (OAS) is comprised of 35 nations in the Americas and was created in 1948 to promote "an order of peace and justice, to promote their solidarity, to strengthen their collaboration, and to defend their sovereignty, their territorial integrity, and their independence."
The IACHR was created as an autonomous organ of the OAS with a mission to promote and protect human rights in the American hemisphere, according to the organization’s website. The commission considers that “special attention must be devoted to those populations, communities and groups that have historically been the targets of discrimination.”
The Onondaga Nation’s petition is unique in that it is not seeking evictions from its historic territory, monetary damages or a casino. Instead, it seeks reconciliation and a ruling that would allow the Nation to continue its role as an environmental steward of the land it once conserved for centuries.
“The Nation brings this Petition to bring about a healing between themselves and all others who live in the region that has been the homeland of the Onondaga Nation since the dawn of time,” the petition says. “The Nation and its people have a unique spiritual, cultural and historic relationship with the land, which is embodied in the Gayanashagowa, the Great Law of Peace. This relationship goes far beyond federal and state legal concepts of ownership, possession or legal rights. The people are one with the land, and consider themselves stewards of it. It is the duty of the Nation’s leaders to work for a healing of this land, to protect it, and to pass it on to future generations. The Onondaga Nation brings this Petition on behalf of its people in the hope that it may hasten the process of reconciliation and bring lasting justice, peace and respect among all who inhabit the area.”
The Haudenosaunee Confederacy is also named as a plaintiff on the petition.
Onondaga’s legal trip began March 11, 2005, when it filed its land rights action in federal court.
On March 29, 2005 the U.S. Supreme Court issued its devastating decision in Sherrill v. Oneida – an 8-1 ruling that invoked the Doctrine of Laches – the idea that the Oneida Nation had waited too long to claim the land.
Although the high court acknowledged that the Oneida Nation’s 300,000-acre land claim was indeed the Nation’s historic reservation that had never been “dis-established and that New York state had taken the land in violation of the law and treaties, the “standards of equity” demanded that it would be too “disruptive” of the current occupants’ lives to return the stolen land to Oneida.
The “standards of federal Indian law and federal equity practice precluded the tribe from rekindling embers of sovereignty that long ago grew cold,” the majority in Sherrill wrote in a footnote.
“The latest insult is this series if decisions starting with Sherrill that resulted in the automatic dismissal of our case,” Joe Heath, Onondaga’s long time general counsel told Indian Country Today Media Network. “Clearly that in and of itself is a human right violation because the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples indicates that states have to have some kind of system that works for redress of treaty violations.”
The petition is presented in two parts: “Facts” and “Merits.” The first section details the illegal taking of the land, the environmental damage to the land and its waters, and the Nation’s efforts to seek a remedy through the U.S. courts. The second section presents the legal arguments for redress based on the facts, focusing on three fundamental human rights – the right to property, the right to equality and the right to judicial protection and due process.
“We also stress that we have tried diplomatic efforts for 220 years – and they don’t work,” Heath said, “but ultimately that’s how we’re going to find a solution to this historic harm – diplomatically and politically.”
Heath acknowledged that the IACHR is an advisory body whose rulings have moral weight, not the power of implementation, but a moral victory would be more than welcomed, he said.
“The Onondagas are not going to quit,” Heath said. “They’re not going to stop talking about their land and to obtain a moral victory at this point would really provide the impetus for the state to find a solution here.”