If President Obama looked out his window Tuesday afternoon, he might have spotted a scene similar to one viewed by his earliest predecessor, George Washington, 220 years ago.
Leaders of the Onondaga Nation based in upstate New York had traveled to the White House wearing traditional Native American garb to tell the president the tribe is not happy with the way it has been treated since Washington signed a treaty designating Onondaga lands in 1794.
In the midst of the group protesting at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, wearing a modern business suit, was Joe Heath, an attorney from Syracuse, N.Y., who has been leading an effort by the Onondaga Nation to reacquire 4,000 square miles the tribe says were illegally seized by the state of New York.
A long legal battle in the federal courts ended last October when the Supreme Court dismissed the tribe’s lawsuit charging violations of the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua, engineered and signed by Washington. So now the Onondaga Nation is taking its case to an international arena: the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights at the Organization of American States.
“The United States is responsible for violations of the rights that are set forth in the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man, the American Convention on Human Rights, and in other provisions of human rights law,” the tribe said in a 40-page petition it delivered Tuesday to the OAS commission.
Afterward, about 50 members of the tribe headed to the White House in hopes of making the current president aware of their plea.
At a rally before the march, Heath noted that the Supreme Court’s dismissal of the tribe’s case came on Oct. 15, one day after the federal holiday honoring Christopher Columbus.
“The timing was ironic,” said Heath, who has represented the Onondaga Nation since the early 1980s. “Columbus personified the Doctrine of Discovery, which is medieval and Eurocentric. The fact that this legal principle is even tolerable, even mentioned, in the 21st century is shocking to me. It basically says that indigenous people are not civilized enough, because they’re not Christians, to own their lands. It basically says that Europeans took over the land as soon as they planted their flag.”
The petition filed Tuesday argues that settlers in upstate New York used the Doctrine of Discovery to seize Onondaga lands between 1788 and 1822. As part of its petition, the Onondaga Nation is asking the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to urge the U.S. to retire the Doctrine of Discovery as a legal construct.
If successful, the Onondaga Nation has no intention of evicting the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers living on the disputed territory, but instead is seeking an admission of inequitable treatment by the U.S. government and the authority to clean up heavily polluted areas, such as Onondaga Lake.
“Our mandate is to protect the animals, the trees, everything that grows,” said Oren Lyons, faith-keeper for the Onondaga Nation’s Turtle Clan.
Oddly enough, Heath became involved in the complicated lands dispute while working on a case stemming from the 1971 Attica Prison riot, which took place on his third day of law school at the University of Buffalo. Through a partnership with William Kunstler, who defended the Attica rioters, Heath became an attorney for Dennis Banks, a leader of the American Indian Movement who periodically ran afoul of the law.
“In 1982, Banks sought sanctuary from federal authorities on the Onondaga Nation,” Health recalled. “I became a liaison between him and the outside authorities, who were champing at the bit. Because Onondaga is sovereign, the federal marshals would not come on there. A year and a half later, I was an attorney for the Onondaga Nation.”
Success at the international level is an extremely long shot, but Heath and members of the Onondaga Nation vowed Tuesday that they will not let the issue drop. The mood was somber as they brandished placards for the walk to the White House with the message, “Take the Doctrine of Discovery out of U.S. law.”
They also carried with them a wampum belt commissioned by Washington to signify peace and friendship when signing the Treaty of Canandaigua. “Belts were the political currency of the times,” said Lyons.
“Regardless of how things transpire, we’ll never quit,” he added.