Bernie Sanders and Onondaga Leaders Engage in Diplomacy, but Will There be Justice?

Onondaga Nation Faithkeeper Oren Lyons and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders

Onondaga Nation Faithkeeper Oren Lyons and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders

Published April 16, 2016

SYRACUSE – On April 12, Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders met with Onondaga Nation Faithkeeper Oren Lyons and Chief Bradley Powless prior to his speech in Syracuse.

He went on to speak at his rally about the great debt owed to Native Americans, to loud cheers of agreement from the non-native crowd. Lyons delivered a letter from Sidney Hill, Tadodaho of the Haudenosaunee, which Sanders promised to read.

April 15th marks two years since the Onondaga Nation petitioned the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to consider the lack of justice provided by U.S. federal courts for the illegal taking of Onondaga homelands by New York State. The IACHR is an independent body which exists to promote the observance and defense of human rights in the Americas. It is part of the Organization of American States, based in Washington, DC and falls under the United Nations system. The petition is under consideration.

The Petition to the IACHR contends that since 2005, the federal courts of the United States have adopted a new standard of law that denies treaty rights to Indigenous nations and that only applies to Indian land rights cases. The practical result of this new standard is that Indigenous nations cannot receive any justice for stolen lands in the federal courts of the United States.

A case study on this lack of justice will be in a forthcoming report by the International Law Association’s Committee on the Implementation of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The Onondaga Nation’s initial Land Rights Action was filed in 2005. At its core was the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua, made by a representative of George Washington to secure the peace and friendship of the Six Nations (or Haudenosaunee, in their own language) in return for acknowledging the lands of the Six Nations and promising to never claim or prevent the free use and enjoyment of those lands. However, New York State subsequently ignored both the Canandaigua Treaty (also sometimes called the Pickering Treaty, after the lead negotiator), and the 1790 Trade and Intercourse Act which established only the federal government had the right to make treaties with native nations. New York State claimed Haudenosaunee lands for its own.

The U.S. Government still recognizes the ongoing validity of the Treaty of Canandaigua. On February 22, 2016 – 301 years and 1 day after George Washington duly ratified the treaty – Haudenosaunee leaders were invited to the White House for a diplomatic ceremony, exchanging words and the annual payment of treaty cloth. While President Obama was not in attendance, representatives of the White House and State Department were. A video of the exchange can be viewed at

This ongoing recognition has not prevented the U.S. courts from establishing case law that applies only to indigenous peoples seeking justice for treaty violations. In 2013, the Onondaga Nation’s Land Rights Action was summarily dismissed by the federal courts of the United States. Subsequently, on April 14, 2014, the Onondaga Nation filed a Petition against the United States in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), a body under the Organization of American States (OAS), headquartered in Washington DC.

“The United States’ misapplication of the legal doctrine of laches to perpetuate the dispossession of indigenous peoples from their lands affects not just our Nation, but others as well,” explained Sidney Hill, Tadodaho of the Onondaga Nation Council of Chiefs. “Injustice against indigenous peoples did not only happen in the past, it continues today. It should not be too much to ask that the United States find a way to truly honor the treaties it has made.”

“Since 1788, 2.5 million acres of land have been stolen from the Onondaga Nation by New York State,” said Joe Heath, General Counsel for the Onondaga Nation. “The failure of the US court system to protect the Onondaga Nation’s ancestral homeland has left the Nation with no choice but to seek assistance for human rights violations from the international community.”

The Onondaga Nation’s petition seeks redress for the violation of the rights of the Onondaga people to their lands, to equal treatment, and to judicial protection. It argues that the denial of any remedy for the taking of their land and the treaty violations constitute human rights violations under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, and other international agreements.

The Onondaga Nation notes the positive decision from the IACHR for indigenous rights in a case brought under the 1843 Treaty of Ruby Valley. The IACHR ruled that the U.S. violated treaty guarantees and that the Western Shoshone Indian Nation should be compensated for environmentally destructive mining of gold and other metals on their lands.

The ultimate purpose of the Onondaga Nation in the assertion of its land rights is to enable the Nation to maintain its culture and way of life, and to protect the earth and its environment for all inhabitants of central New York. The Nation’s Land Rights Action has not been disruptive.

“The Nation is asking to continue the healing process between themselves and others who live in the region,” added Joe Heath. “The Nation is searching for positive ruling that would allow them to continue its role as an environmental steward of the land and waters it once conserved for centuries.”

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