Give Syracuse, New York back to the Indians!

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun Jan 30 09:47:47 MST 2000

NY Times, January 30, 2000

Tribal Justice? They'd Settle for Syracuse


ONONDAGA INDIAN NATION -- WHEN representatives of the Onondaga Nation met
with state officials last year to identify land that they say was illegally
taken from them, they mentioned one eye-catching parcel: a piece of ground
commonly known as the city of Syracuse.

"The city of Syracuse, 160,000 people," Chief Powless said the other day in
his large log home on rural Onondaga land just south of Syracuse. "It's in
total violation."

Consternation and hostility over Indian land claims are boiling in central
New York. The Onondagas's announced plans to sue alleging theft of the
state's fifth-largest city is hardly lowering the flame.

But the question of who owns Syracuse is not just about land, since few
debate who was here first. Like the other land disputes, it is also about

To the white landowners, the Indians are living in the past. "To claim the
whole city of Syracuse, it's mind-boggling," said Mary Teelin, a Syracuse
nurse. Said Leon Koziol, a lawyer for the landowners, "It is an excellent
way to raise large amounts of cash on the backs of taxpayers to settle a
200-year-old wrong that could never be corrected in modern times."

TO the Indians, the past is inseparable from the present. They say the
white landowners see history as a commodity, easily discarded.

Chief Powless and another Onondaga chief, Oren Lyons, grew up hunting and
fishing together in the rolling hills and streams of their 7,000-acre
nation. Chief Powless is 70 and Chief Lyons is a few months younger, but
full, smooth faces and ponytails hide it. They were raised on the story of
stolen land and a debt owed by the descendants of European invaders. Now
they are trying to collect it. The old treaties are alive to them. "I was
there," Chief Powless said. "My relatives were there."

Indian land disputes, settled in many states, rage on in New York. In 1985,
the Supreme Court found that the state violated federal law 200 years ago
by buying Indian land without federal approval.

A federal jury in Syracuse is now considering how much the state owes the
Cayuga Indians for 64,000 acres taken illegally. A claim of 250,000 acres
by the Oneida Indians is being negotiated. The Onondagas's claim is the
most dramatic, seeking land and compensation for some of the most valuable
property in this part of the state.

The moment is precarious for the Onondagas. "The potential for failure is
high," Chief Lyons said. Once a claim is resolved, recouping more land will
be hard and their legend of the unpaid debt will be altered.

The job of the modern Indian chief is to uphold the traditions without
fumbling the present. The chiefs have their eye on both. They want land
around Syracuse's polluted Onondaga Lake, sacred ground to Indians, and
they want the lake cleaned up. They'll seek no evictions of private
landowners. "We were chased all over the state of New York," Chief Powless
said. "We'd never do that." They might settle for land elsewhere in the

THE chiefs see themselves weathering a continuum of hostility from Gov.
DeWitt Clinton, who they say obtained land illegally, to Gov. George E.
Pataki, who they say is resisting settling claims. Their goal, they say, is
their nation's survival. To show their enduring tradition, Chief Powless, a
turquoise earring dangling from his left ear, sings an ancient Indian song.
The background music is a fax machine whirring on his desk.

If they don't live in the past, they do live with it. And it gives them
purpose, especially now.

Chief Lyons, an American studies professor at SUNY Buffalo, said that when
he graduated from Syracuse University, Chief Powless's father took him
fishing in a boat. The older man asked the new graduate if he now knew who
he was. The young man said his name and his Indian name. But there was
silence and he knew his answer was wrong. "He turned around and pointed to
a bluff and pointed to a pine tree," Chief Lyons said. "He said: 'You're
just like the pine tree. You're anchored to the earth. Earth is your
mother. You're not going to get away from it.' "

Louis Proyect
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