On Tuesday April 15th the Onondaga Indian Nation filed a petition with the Organization of American States, calling on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to condemn the United States for human rights violations. The Onondaga are seeking recognition for human rights violations in response to U.S. courts refusal to hear their lawsuit asking for the return of some 2.5 million acres of sovereign land in upstate New York.
The Chiefs from the Onondaga Nation held a demonstration in front of the White House after filing their petition. The crowd was wearing traditional Onondaga dress and carried a historic wampum belt that was commissioned by President George Washington as a symbol of peace during the signing of the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua.
The Onondaga Nation is one of the six nations that comprise the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, Confederacy. According to their official website, “the Onondaga Nation survives as a sovereign, independent nation, living on a portion of its ancestral territory and maintaining its own distinct government, laws, language, customs, and culture.” They reside on a 7,300 acre territory south of Syracuse, New York.
The Onondaga report that since 1788 2.5 million acres of land have been stolen by new york state. In March 2005 the Onondaga filed the first lawsuit in the United States District Court, which was dismissed. They appealed that decision but it was affirmed by the Second Circuit of Appeals. Finally the Nation sought a review of the dismissal by the Supreme Court. On October 15, 2013 the petition was denied. With the state and Supreme Court refusing to hear the case, the Onondaga say they have no choice but to look for assistance from the international community.
Despite continuous violations of treaties the Onondaga Nation is not seeking to remove New York residents. The lawsuit states that they are not looking for monetary damages, or evictions but rather seeking a ruling that would allow them to care for and heal the land. The Onondaga Nation says it wants to cleanup dangerous pollution sites on the land.
The Onondaga have received support from the other five American Indian nations in the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, including the Onondaga, Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga and Seneca Nations.
The Onondaga are not only facing off with the United States government over land issues but also fighting for the right to freely grow their own tobacco. The Onondaga produce and sell tobacco products without a license and without paying federal taxes. Joe Heath, the Onondaga’s lawyer, has been negotiation the issue for the past year. The Onondaga declare that since the United States has violated treaties they are not subject to the federal taxes. They are the last Indian Nation to resist federal cigarette taxes.
“The treaties say they have free use and enjoyment of their territory. They don’t feel that they’re required to succumb to federal law,” Heath commented. “In the minds of the Onondaga, imposing federal law in their territory would be “just another treaty violation.”
Despite history books filled with stories of happy endings between Native Americans and the European colonizers, Indigenous peoples in the United States and across the globe continue to deal with oppression and theft. The Onondaga Nation is determined not to go down without a fight.
Onondaga Clan Mother Freida Jacques described the situation:
“We’re here, we’re speaking out and they know where we stand. Maybe you won’t write it in history, but we’ll know we made this effort and we’re not letting the people down.”