[Marxism] The ecological Indian

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Mar 12 17:24:13 MST 2005

NY Times, March 12, 2005
The Onondaga tribe says that New York illegally acquired land that includes 
Syracuse; it wants a court to declare that it still holds title to the land.

The Onondaga Nation, an Indian tribe based in upstate New York, filed a 
lawsuit yesterday claiming that it owns 3,100 square miles of land 
stretching from the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Pennsylvania border and 
including Syracuse.

The tribe contends that the State of New York illegally acquired the land 
in a series of treaties between 1788 and 1822 and has asked the Federal 
District Court in Syracuse to declare that it still holds title to the 
land, which is now home to hundreds of thousands of people and includes all 
or part of 11 counties.

It is the largest Indian land claim ever filed in the state. The tribe said 
that it does not want all of that land, however, but that its principal 
intent is to gain leverage to clean up polluted sites in the land claim area.

The lawsuit names as defendants the State of New York, the City of Syracuse 
and Onondaga County, as well as five corporations that, the nation 
contends, have damaged the environment in the claim area.

Todd Alhart, a spokesman for Gov. George E. Pataki, said late yesterday 
that the governor's office had not yet received a copy of the claim. "We 
will take whatever steps may be necessary to protect the interests of 
property owners and taxpayers in central New York, the Southern Tier and 
the northern New York region," Mr. Alhart said.

Unlike other Indian tribes that have filed land claims against the state, 
the Onondaga Nation, which has about 1,500 members, is not seeking monetary 
damages or the right to operate casinos in New York. Instead, tribal 
representatives said, the Onondagas want a declaratory judgment saying the 
land, which they consider ancestral territory, was taken illegally.

They then hope to use such a ruling to force the cleanup of sites in the 
claim area, particularly Onondaga Lake, a federal Superfund site and one of 
the most contaminated bodies of water in the nation.

The Onondaga Nation has made the cleanup of the lake, which is 4.5 miles 
long and one mile wide, one of its priorities. The tribe has lived near the 
lake for centuries and regards it as sacred land.

Tribal representatives said yesterday that the nation would not sue 
individual property owners or try to evict them.

"The nation has said flat-out that individuals have nothing to worry 
about," said Dan Klotz, a spokesman for the nation. The Onondagas, he said, 
"will not waver from that."

Other pending Indian land claims in New York have not interfered with 
property transactions, experts on Indian law said.

"They don't plan to press for eviction as a remedy and I don't think 
there's ever been a court that has seriously considered eviction," said 
John Dossett, general counsel for the National Congress of American 
Indians, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group for tribal governments. "I 
think that homeowners can rest easy."

At the same time, however, tribal authorities said they were in the market 
for more land. The nation's reservation is an 11-square-mile parcel south 
of Syracuse. Joseph J. Heath, an attorney who represents the Onondaga 
Nation, said if the court rules in the tribe's favor, he expected that 
settlement talks with the state to follow, including discussions about 
expanding the nation's reservation and protecting ancestral burial grounds 
threatened by development.

Mr. Heath said the tribe would try to buy land only from "willing sellers" 
and the government.

Still, Mr. Heath and other tribal representatives emphasized that the 
tribe's main intent was to gain more influence over state environmental 
policy and push for environmental cleanups in their region. "They're sick 
of being ignored on environmental issues," Mr. Heath said.

The tribe's elders have discussed filing suit for more than 50 years, they 
said in interviews yesterday. But as the pollution in the lake increased - 
and their own population expanded - they felt compelled to take legal action.

Decades of industrial dumping left a layer of toxic sludge on the lake 
bottom and drove the federal government to place it on the Superfund list 
of toxic waste sites in 1994. Last November, state regulators announced a 
plan to require Honeywell International to conduct a $448 million cleanup 
of the lake, including extensive dredging of the lake bottom to remove much 
of the 165,000 pounds of mercury and other toxins that have collected there.

Honeywell is one of five companies named in the Onondaga lawsuit. It is 
responsible for the cleanup because in 1999 it merged with Allied Chemical, 
which owned a plant that was accused of being one of the lake's main polluters.

The Onondagas have called the cleanup plan inadequate and say the state was 
legally obligated to consult with the tribe's chiefs but did not.

Mr. Alhart, the governor's spokesman, rejected the nation's assertion that 
the state was being lax on the cleanup of Lake Onondaga or that it had 
ignored the nation.

The lawsuit also names four other companies that operate a gravel mine, 
limestone quarry and coal-burning power plant in the region. In the 
lawsuit, the Onondagas also named Clark Concrete Company and a subsidiary, 
Valley Realty Development, which own a gravel mine in Tully, N.Y.

The nation has accused the mine of polluting the Onondaga Creek, which runs 
into the lake. The nation also named Hanson Aggregates North America, the 
owners of a limestone quarry in DeWitt, and Trigen Syracuse Energy 
Corporation, a coal-burning power plant in Geddes.

Attempts made late yesterday to reach officials with those companies were 

Tribal representatives said yesterday that they were not seeking a casino 
as part of a settlement of the claim. Casinos are a central component of 
five Indian land claim settlement agreements that Gov. George Pataki 
announced in recent months.

Michelle York contributed reporting from the Onondaga Indian Reservation 
for this article.

Louis Proyect
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