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

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. 
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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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