Attorney Goes Global in New York Tribe’s Fight With U.S.

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Joe Heath, the general councel for the Onondaga Nation talks about the petition they are filing against the United States with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) during a press conference in Washington D.C. on Tuesday, April 15, 2014. 
National Journal
Christopher Snow Hopkins
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Christopher Snow Hopkins
April 15, 2014, 4:16 p.m.

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.

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