Give New York State back to the Iroquois
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Tue May 16 10:00:29 MDT 2000
New York Times, May 16, 2000
Stakes Rising Over Iroquois Land Claims
By DAVID W. CHEN
ONONDAGA NATION -- The Oneidas want 250,000 rural acres between Syracuse
and Utica. The Cayugas are staking claim to a 64,000-acre wishbone at the
northern tip of Cayuga Lake. The Senecas are eyeing the Buffalo bedroom
community of Grand Island. And the Mohawks, though distracted by a possible
Catskills casino, are asking for various islands and parcels straddling the
For years, these Indian nations, all members of the Iroquois confederation,
have demanded the return of vast swaths of land based on treaties dating
back to George Washington's administration. But within the next few months,
the stakes will increase as two cases head toward a trial and the Onondagas
file the last, and most valuable, Iroquois land claim: a heavily populated
tract of 64,000 acres that includes Syracuse.
No one is saying that Syracuse will suddenly change hands, or that anyone
will be forcibly uprooted. But with the Iroquois backed by the federal
government, the claims will probably lead to settlements or litigation
costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, and could intensify the
anger over one of the biggest and touchiest topics in upstate New York.
And unlike other states, particularly in the West, which typically have
Indian land claims in thinly populated areas resulting from the federal
seizure of land, New York occupies a dubious position: it has more claims
than any other state, but has been the slowest to resolve those claims,
which total roughly 620 square miles, about double the size of New York City.
"There's a problem here that's over 25 years old," said Steven M. Tullberg,
director of the Washington office of the Indian Law Resource Center, which
has advised numerous Indian groups, "that's been passed from administration
to administration, that's involved lots of people, lots of money, lots of
lawyers, and after all that period of time, nothing is resolved."
To some residents, the real issues are: Why us? Why now? The subject has
triggered such an antagonistic reaction, it could be a major issue in the
fall elections and a potential problem for the Democratic Senate candidate,
Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose husband's administration has been accused by
Gov. George E. Pataki of giving unconditional support to unfair Indian land
claims and a lawsuit naming 20,000 landowners as defendants.
"They're buying plazas, stores, entire tracts, farmland, and the
reservations are like checkerboards," said Leon R. Koziol, a Utica lawyer
who has represented several landowner groups. "Then eventually, what do you
have? A virtual country within a country, and it's scary."
The Iroquois, though, say the issue has never been about greed or power. In
fact, they have pledged not to evict any landowners. What they say is at
stake is redressing ancient wrongs and securing a better future for their
So it was all the more symbolic when about 50 chiefs from the Iroquois
nations convened a rare meeting in March just south of Syracuse at the
sacred longhouse that is the spiritual and political heart of the Iroquois
-- or as they prefer to be called, Haudenosaunee.
While the formal agenda, conducted solemnly in Iroquois languages, focused
on selecting new Mohawk leaders, the informal discussion swirled around the
nation-by-nation status of their claims.
"Our people have been waiting a long time for this," said Chief Oren Lyons
of the Onondaga Nation. "This is not something we just made up."
During the late 1700's and early 1800's, New York State bought or seized
most Iroquois properties without Congressional ratification, thereby
violating the Federal Trade and Intercourse Act of 1790. Yet for years, the
Iroquois failed to reverse these deals, stymied by discrimination and legal
obstacles, said Robert W. Venables, a senior lecturer in the American
Indian program at Cornell University.
In 1970, the Oneidas became the first Iroquois nation to file a land claim
in federal court. And in 1985, the Supreme Court sided with the Oneidas, in
a 5-to-4 decision concerning a "test case" that named Oneida and Madison
Counties as defendants and claimed only 900 acres.
At that point, the state and the Oneidas began settlement talks, which
yielded mostly accusations of foot-dragging. Then, in December 1998, the
Oneidas and the Justice Department, hoping to pressure the state and the
two counties, moved to name 20,000 landowners as defendants.
"There has been much more activity in the last few months than in all the
years previous," said Richard Rifkin, deputy attorney general for New York
State, referring to all the claims.
The landowners' predicament has prompted officials like Governor Pataki,
Senator Charles E. Schumer and Representative Sherwood L. Boehlert to ask
the Justice Department to drop the 20,000 landowners from the Oneida suit.
Mr. Pataki, for instance, sent a pointed letter to President Clinton in
early April, accusing the administration of offering "unconditional
support" to a tribe that held residents "hostage under clouded real estate
titles and the constant threat of eviction, while systematically executing
a plan to amass large quantities of land upon which it pays no real estate
taxes, evades all state and federal environmental and land use regulations,
and wages a war of unfair business competition against the law abiding, tax
paying business owners in central New York."
And in the Senate campaign, both Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Mrs. Clinton
have sympathized with the landowners, though neither has discussed the
issue at length.
In recent months, an Oneida settlement seemed close, thanks to the
diligence of a court-appointed mediator, Ronald J. Riccio: a proposal of
$500 million for the three branches of the Oneidas (the others are in
Wisconsin and Ontario), plus a cap on how much land the New York Oneidas
could eventually acquire to buttress their current territory of 12,000 acres.
But several weeks ago, the talks collapsed, as the Oneidas rebuffed the
state's demand for 25 percent of the revenue from the Oneidas' hugely
profitable Turning Stone casino east of Syracuse. So a trial may begin this
summer before Judge Neal McCurn of Federal District Court in Syracuse.
To date, the only land claim to go to trial in New York has been the Cayuga
In 1980, the Cayugas, who have no land in New York, filed a claim for
64,000 acres in Seneca and Cayuga Counties. In February, a jury awarded
them $37 million in a decision that stunned the Cayugas, who had appraised
the land at $660 million. But a second phase of the trial is set to begin
in July, and the Cayugas may challenge the award.
In northeastern New York, the struggling Mohawks claimed 15,000 acres in
1985, mostly in St. Lawrence and Franklin Counties, as well as Barnhart
Island -- the site of the New York Power Authority's Robert Moses-Robert H.
Saunders hydroelectric dam.
For years, the claim stalled, in part because of New York's desire to
collect taxes from non-Indians who buy goods on all reservations. In recent
months, though, the claim has become linked to the tribe's attempts to
build a casino complex at the Monticello Raceway in the Catskills. That
project is now in doubt, with the Mohawks mired in internal politics and
juggling separate deals with competing developers.
"It just adds some significant elements of confusion to what was already a
confusing situation," Mr. Rifkin said.
No less confusing are the Senecas, who live on three reservations and have
two separate governments in western New York. They are claiming land in
different areas, too, with the big prize being Grand Island, a middle-class
Buffalo suburb, population 18,500, in the Niagara River.
The Senecas filed their claim for roughly 18,000 acres in 1993. Not much
happened, though, until late March, Mr. Rifkin said, when the state filed a
motion to dismiss the case, based on old maps disputing the Senecas'
And now, it is the Onondagas' turn.
The Onondagas plan to file a claim of about 64,000 acres, which would
include Syracuse and Onondaga Lake, one of the most polluted lakes in the
country. At the same time, the Onondagas -- traditionalists who oppose
gambling -- want to help clean up the lake and champion projects to benefit
their resource-poor nation of nine square miles, Chief Irving Powless Jr.
"We know the land claim is going to cause some disruption, but we want to
work with the community to minimize that," said Joseph J. Heath, a Syracuse
lawyer who represents the Onondagas. "We want to be different from the
Cayuga and Oneida areas, where all of the politicians are acting as if they
have hoods on their heads."
The Iroquois are not the only ones with land claims in the state: in 1986,
the Stockbridge-Munsee band of Mohicans, who are now based in Wisconsin,
filed a claim for six square miles, within the Oneida claim.
The Oneidas have challenged that claim, and nothing has happened for years,
"not even a phone call," said Sharon Greene-Gretzinger, tribal lawyer for
the Stockbridge-Munsee band.
Someday, land claims may also be filed by several groups without federal
recognition, including the Shinnecocks and the Poospatucks on Long Island.
But for now, the Iroquois claims have particularly unhinged residents in
predominantly rural, working-class areas who sometimes talk about land as a
family heirloom, not as a real estate commodity.
It is not just a matter of the Iroquois asking for land that would
quadruple the area of all current Indian holdings in the state. It is the
specter of the Iroquois accruing land, removing them from the tax rolls and
surrounding landowners and local businesses in checkerboard fashion to
where non-Indians feel compelled to sell out.
There have been protest convoys decrying the "special treatment" of
Indians, pickets of Indian-owned businesses, newsletters from landowner
groups with articles like "Who were the first Americans? Who Cares?"
And the issue has become a big part of state politics. At a recent meeting
of a new Syracuse group, the American Land Rights Coalition, Mr. Koziol and
others discussed broader strategies like lobbying trips to Washington,
national alliances and get-out-the-vote endeavors.
"It was a political issue in our local elections this last time, and, oh
yeah, I see it having a great part in the elections this year," said Connie
Tallcot, a bookstore owner in Union Springs, on Cayuga Lake. "We're
courting either party, and we don't care who helps us."
It has been enough of a cauldron that a Quaker group in Syracuse recently
sponsored public forums to try to defuse tensions in anticipation of the
"I definitely don't feel upbeat, because knowing what I know about the
other land claims, it's not going to be an easy route," said Mary Teelin, a
Syracuse nurse who has been active in landowner groups. "No matter who wins
the lawsuit, they'll appeal, and appeal, and appeal, and nothing is going
to be resolved any time soon."
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