Apologies to the Iroquois

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Sun May 28 09:36:31 MDT 2000

The New York Times, May 27, 2000, Saturday, Late Edition - Final

Apologies to the Iroquois Are Not Enough

By Robert B. Porter; Robert B. Porter is a professor of law at the
University of Kansas and a citizen of the Seneca Nation.

Across upstate New York, Indians from the six nations of the Haudenosaunee,
or Iroquois, are becoming impatient with the slow resolution of claims for
return of land taken from us illegally after 1790. A claim by the Oneidas
for 900 acres near Oneida Lake is finally heading to trial, but Seneca and
Mohawk cases are crawling through the legal system, and an Onondaga claim
is expected this year.

All the Iroquois hope this story won't be $24 worth of beads Part II. But
if one case that has actually gone to trial is an indication, we can hardly
count on it.

In January, a federal jury awarded the Cayugas, another Iroquois nation,
just $36.9 million for 64,000 acres of land. The Cayugas had claimed a loss
of $2 billion. The United States, suing on their behalf, had estimated
their claim at $335 million. But the jury awarded even less than the $51.9
million offered by the state in settlement negotiations, confirming the
bitterness of those who call it impossible for indigenous people to get
justice in America's courts.

The case is not over. A second phase of the trial begins in July, and there
are ample grounds for modification of the award. But the results so far are

Historically, the Cayugas numbered about 1,000 and lived in the Finger
Lakes area of central New York. On the land they claim, about 10,000
people, mostly white, now live in small towns and on farms.

After the Revolutionary War, the new State of New York, seeking land to
give to men who had fought against the British, coerced the Iroquois into
signing treaties intended to extinguish our land titles. But those treaties
were in violation of federal law.

 In 1790, Congress had passed the Nonintercourse Act, prohibiting and
invalidating all Indian land transactions not made under the authority of
the federal government. New York ignored the law and took millions of acres
with no federal oversight. Some Iroquois retained small reservations, but
the Cayugas were coerced into selling all their land, for as little as
$1.50 per acre. They scattered, hoping someday they might return.

In 1974, the Supreme Court ruled that the Oneidas could sue for violations
of the Nonintercourse Act. In 1980, the Cayugas, building on this
precedent, filed their suit, and in 1989, a federal court said they had a
valid claim. The remaining question was the appropriate remedy.

The Cayugas sought not only damages, but the return of their land and the
removal of all trespassers. But thousands of those living in the claim area
mobilized to oppose the establishment of any new Cayuga homeland, and last
summer the court ruled that removal of trespassers was not an "equitable"

The theory of justice embraced thus far by federal, state and local
officials is that the Cayugas should be paid some amount of money with
which they can try to buy their own land back from people who do not want
them to have any of it.

It is hard to imagine another issue that forces Americans to confront their
sinful past quite like an Indian land claim. The trespassing non-Indians in
Cayuga territory protest that it was not they, but the state, 200 years
ago, that caused this problem. They are technically right. But they are
still residing on someone else's land.

After two centuries of aggression that led to the near-demise of the
Cayugas as a people, justice requires more than handing them a check and
wishing them luck. It requires that the wrongdoer, the state, give them
back enough land and enough of a financial settlement to allow them to
rebuild their nation.

As in Northern Ireland, leaders on both sides need to emerge to build peace
plans between New York and the Iroquois. But before that can happen, state
and federal officials must find the political courage to tell the whites
living on Indian land that the original owners continue to have a valid
legal right to it.

Louis Proyect
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