The Iroquois Are Not Giving Up

Confronted with a string of unfavorable court rulings, the Confederacy staged a 13-day demonstration to kickstart a social movement.
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Melissa Taub

The history of Native Americans is still alive and ongoing, and the Iroquois Confederacy, or Haudenosaunee, wants you to remember that. On Friday, August 9 th, their chiefs met with the Dutch Consul General on the 57th Street Pier in Manhattan to honor the 400th Anniversary of their 1613 treaty with the Kingdom of the Netherlands. It was the culmination of a thirteen-day paddle down the Hudson River, with daily stops where tribe members and supporters held cultural events and lectures, and invited locals to listen to traditional music and dance. The goal: not just to raise consciousness over land rights--suits for which have been uniformly unsuccessful in recent years--but to build support for enforcing treaties between natives and settlers for the purposes of environmental conservation, as well.

"It brings to the public's attention that we have operated on a nation-to-nation level with our European brothers and sisters for four hundred years," said Tonya Gonella Frichner, founder of the American Indian Law Alliance. "It's about extending a hand of friendship to the Netherlands, to all of the member nations of the UN, and to our neighbors."

The Iroquois Confederacy comprises six nations: the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Tuscarora, and Seneca, whose historical territory is Upstate New York.

In 2005, the Onondaga filed a lawsuit against New York State, the city of Syracuse, Onondaga County, and five corporations, claiming that the state had illegally seized the tribe's land and that the corporations had been destroying the environment in the area. At the time, The New York Times reported that the tribe was using the land claim as leverage to force environmental cleanup--they had no intention of taking back the land by evicting people currently living on it. Rather, one of the key issues was that the company Honeywell International, among others, had for decades been dumping chemical waste into Onondaga Lake, a sacred site. The lake, an EPA superfund site, is now one of the most polluted in the country, and has a thick layer of mercury at its bottom.

The courts have categorically dismissed the cases and subsequent appeals. Part of the problem with the land rights struggle is the Doctrine of Discovery, which states that European explorers and settlers have superior rights to the land. This doctrine flows from a decree by Pope Nicholas in 1452 to allow the subjugation of "heathen" lands in Africa and the New World. It was adopted by American law in 1823 in the Supreme Court case Johnson vs. McIntosh, and never overturned. Recently, it was used in 2005 as part of a court decision to dismiss an Oneida land case.

"We've just about exhausted our avenues in the U.S. courts," said Todadaho Sid Hill, the spiritual leader of the Iroquois. "We have one more appeal, which is going to be denied, and then we go to the world courts." The language used in publicity materials has been resolute: "The Onondaga will not settle for other methods such as casinos that have been used to resolve other Native American claims," the Onondaga Nation's website still reads.

To an outsider, the fight might look futile. When the chiefs and most of the Iroquois were asked what keeps them fighting for their people in the face of so few victories, they responded: 'the children.' "I'm concerned for the seventh generation coming," said Faithkeeper and Onondaga Chief Oren Lyons. In Iroquois culture every chief is expected to take into account seven generations forward with every decision he makes. "That's why we're still here," said Tia Oros Peters, Executive Director of the Seventh Generation Fund. "If someone hadn't put out prayers for me five hundred years ago, I wouldn't be talking to you today."

"After a judge in Albany dismissed the last case in 2010, we started to ask ourselves: well, what are we going to do now?" said Andy Mager, one of the founders of Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation, who was helping support the legal battle through public outreach. "Joe Heath, the lead attorney for the Onondaga, then said: 'Maybe what we need is a land rights movement, not a land rights action.' And that got us thinking."

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Julian Taub is a writer living in New York City.

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