Indigenous land rights still a debate 400 years later
Canoes and ships will sail side-by-side down the Hudson River from Albany to New York City this summer in a symbolic reenactment of a treaty signed 400 years ago.
In 1613, the Two Row Wampum Treaty became the first official agreement between the Haudenosaunee indigenous peoples, also known as the Iroquois, of upstate New York and Dutch settlers. It outlined a mutual commitment to friendship, peace between people, and a noninterference ethic, an oath that — to put it gently — has not been upheld.
Some of the most distinctive evidence of European oppression of indigenous peoples can be seen in land relations. This complex history is defined by broken treaties, overturned court rulings and illegal land grabs.
In 1790, the federal government established the Indian Non-Intercourse Act that recognized indigenous nations as separate and sovereign nations that only the federal government, not states, could make treaties with. This sentiment was reemphasized in 1794 when George Washington authored the Canadaigua Treaty.
“The Canadaigua Treaty solidified the notion that the federal government would never take away or disturb the indigenous peoples’ lands and would be a friend in perpetuity,” anthropology professor Brooke Hansen, who has worked with the Cayuga Nation for over a decade, said. “One year later, the state of New York came in and annexed Cayuga land. But the state can’t do that, it was a violation of federal law. This is the basis of the Cayuga land claim and all Native American land claims.”
A rhetorical shift also occurred in the 19th century and the nations once recognized as sovereign began to be identified as ‘domestic, dependent nations’. They were no longer considered fully autonomous but rather an entity within the United States. The federal government allowed some indigenous peoples to keep the ‘reservations’ they lived on as communal land to operate their nations but the government asserted oversight and the ultimate governing title, a very controversial nuance.
“Indigenous people were herded like cattle and enslaved on reservations. When the Europeans found something they wanted such as copper or gold, they would put in a strip mine on the reservation,” Audrey Cooper, a member of the Cherokee Nation, said. “They would take what they wanted and leave, depleting the resources.”
As a result of these unjust and illegal acts, indigenous peoples were left with a minuscule amount of land and raw materials in their own control.
“The Cayugas have no land. The Oneidas were left with 32 acres. The Onondagas have a couple square miles. That’s how much the lands were decimated following the 1794 Treaty,” Hansen said.
The Onondaga Nation’s traditional land encompassed a huge swatch of New York state including Binghamton, Oswego, Syracuse and Watertown. The annexation of this land meant not only the loss of valuable property, but perhaps equally as important, loss of control over environmental regulation.
“A lot of the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois cultural philosophies are about preserving the environment. In the Onondaga’s case, they’re saying, ‘You took our land illegally and look what you did with it!’” Hansen said.
Onondaga Lake has been called the most polluted lake in the country and the Nation wants to try and heal it. Their land claim, which demands a seat at the table in talking about environmental justice, is called a “Land Rights Action.” They also want to remove the toxic waste sites scattered about the area.
For 200 years, indigenous peoples attempted to reclaim their lands but until recently they were denied access to the federal court system. When the doors finally opened to them in the 1970s, the Oneidas were the first nation to fight for their lands back in New York state court, followed shortly afterwards by the Cayugas in 1980.
“What they want is a recognition that these were illegal acts by the state of New York and they want land back so they can operate their nations. You can’t operate a nation with no land because you’ve got nowhere for a nation center, nation offices, health care, education,” Hansen said.
Along with its tangible benefits, land holds great symbolic meaning to many indigenous nations. In a way, an essential part of indigenous peoples history was lost when lands were taken according to Paige Bethmann, a Ithaca College sophomore and member of the Mohawk Nation of the Iroquois Confederacy.
“Land is something that’s very important to Native people. A lot of their roots were from the land and a lot of their legends, stories, teachings come from those places,” Bethmann said. “Having them taken away and controlled by a new people is very hard for Native people to deal with. It’s like losing a part of their culture.”
In the 1980 case, the court ruled in favor of the Cayugas, citing that New York state had in fact partook in illegal land theft. The nation was granted a portion of their land back along with monetary compensation; however, they never received the settlement.
“The Cayugas’ spent over 20 years trying to get that settlement from the state of New York as the state appealed the decision,” Hansen said. “In 2005, a decision came that the 2nd Circuit Court threw the whole thing out on something called ‘latches’. Everyone ran to Wikipedia and other sources asking ‘What the heck is latches?’ Turns out it comes from medieval common law or some other ancient foundation and it basically translates as, ‘It’s just been too long to deal with this so we’re going to throw the whole thing out.’”
This decision was a devastating blow to indigenous nations across the country, as the Cayuga case set a precedent for all other land claims. Despite commentaries by Harvard Law professors stating that the Doctrine of Latches cannot be used in this circumstance, the ruling has stood.
“My opinion is that if the Court of Appeals said, ‘It’s just been too long to bring justice to these people because it was so long ago,’ then why do we still follow the Constitution? Was that not the same time period? Do you see the fickleness? ‘Oh it’s Indian stuff, so let’s just make it go away,’” Hansen said.
The obstacles faced by the indigenous peoples in upstate New York are compounded by a long history of racism. When Hansen moved to the area in the late 90s she was struck by the blatant discrimination faced by indigenous peoples in the region. She recalled seeing signs in yards with sentiments such as, “No Indians”, “Indians go Home”, “Scalp the Land Claim” and “Go NRA”.
According to Hansen, any thought of Natives returning to the land brings out racist feelings in people. In her work with the Cayugas, she witnesses this on a regular basis.
“We’ve seen it all, we’ve heard it all. In the last 15 years, we’ve head people say, ‘I don’t want Native people to move back to the area because they’re dirty, they’re alcoholics, they’re going to ruin our way of life,’” Hansen said.
Amid an economic recession, indigenous peoples are often the scapegoat for small-town financial troubles. While there is a commonly accepted idea that no taxes are paid on indigenous peoples’ lands, this is not the case. Since reservations are federal lands, they are taken off of the state property tax role; however, any businesses on the territory must pay federal income taxes just like any other business in the country.
Current inhabitants of upstate lands fear that a switch of control to indigenous peoples’ hands would put local municipalities at a disadvantage since they would not receive the benefits that come with being part of the property tax base. To remedy this, in many cases, the federal government has volunteered to compensate for that loss in property tax. In addition, businesses that develop on those lands, such as casinos, may more than make up for the loss.
“When we talk about land it leads to anger and fear because those that own the land — maybe their ancestors stole it or it was given to them illegally — are afraid that the indigenous peoples of that area in asking for land back will take their land,” Cooper said.
Despite many obstacles, indigenous peoples have not given up in the fight for land rights. The Oneida Indian Nation of upstate New York is currently awaiting a decision by the Supreme Court on whether or not it will hear their case regarding the legal status of a 300-acre reservation. Oneida and Madison counties have been trying to foreclose on the land the Oneida Nation owns but has not paid taxes on.
Hansen said the prospects for the Oneidas’ success are extremely bleak or to put it bluntly, “absolutely zero.”
Although indigenous peoples’ land claims are unlikely to succeed in this political climate, indigenous peoples have found ways to work the system to their benefit.
“What we’ve been doing with the Cayugas is encouraging a model of partnership between Native and non-native people whereby people buy land and return it to the Native nations or the Native nations start businesses and purchase the land themselves and then apply to put it in trust,” Hansen said.
This model has proven successful on a small scale. Hansen was part of a group that bought 70 acres of historic Cayuga land and turned it over to the Nation. The Cayugas started buying up other surrounding parcels of land with revenue from gas stations. They then applied to have the land put into a federal trust through the due process that the government has laid out. As a result of this effort known as the Cayuga SHARE Farm, 20 Cayuga families have moved back to the area.
Land recovery like this may bring Nations back together that have been torn apart over the last two centuries.
“A lot of the Haudenosaunee people that are now living in California and Ohio might return if there was land,” Hansen said. “For example, the Onondaga Nation has run out of space so their people are forced to move off reservation now. Alleviating space issues can help them develop as a nation, develop businesses to support themselves and try to pull themselves out of the economic situation that many tribes are in.”
Much of the misunderstanding and racism surrounding indigenous peoples comes from miseducation. Hansen and others are working hard to open students’ eyes to a more comprehensive history of indigenous peoples in this country.
“People are still ignorant to the fact that Native people live in houses, go to work, have jobs and are trying to make a living like everyone else. In peoples’ minds they’re still stuck in a teepee or wearing loin clothes,” Bethmann said.
Cooper is the lead event coordinator for the First Peoples Festival, one of several community efforts to dispel the media’s misguided representation of indigenous people. The festival is a day of celebration and sharing of indigenous culture held in downtown Ithaca each fall.
“The festival allows our indigenous vendors to sell the jewelry, paintings, sculptures and everything that they make. It also allows the community to be able to have a conversations with indigenous people,” Cooper said. “This is extremely important because it helps them to begin to build relationships and create a better understanding of indigenous culture.”
Hansen works in Ithaca schools where she challenges students to think about appropriate reparations for the injustices indigenous peoples experienced. She asks them to think in terms of our current obligations.
“We live in the homeland of the Cayugas and we pushed them out. We weren’t the one’s who did it but don’t we have an obligation to these people who call this place home?” Hansen said.
According to Bethmann, many students at IC are unaware that the campus sits on indigenous peoples’ lands. While the new Native Studies program is a step in the right direction, she says a lot more need to be done.
“Half the people I talk to wonder why there is a Native American Studies program on campus if there aren’t any Native Americans here. I actually overheard someone saying that!” Bethmann said. “It’s like ‘Wow, you’re actually sitting on Native American lands now. This is Cayuga territory!’”
Until the tens of thousands of indigenous peoples from upstate New York receive physical, monetary and symbolic compensation for the land and culture that was stripped from them hundreds of years ago, and until there is public recognition of an historic, illegal land grab, justice will not be served.
Abby Sophir is a junior TVR major who thinks if you can trace your great-great-great ancestors to a landscape, then it’s yours. Email her at gsophir1[at]ithaca[dot]edu.