[Paleopsych] NYT: Tribe Lays Claim to 3, 100 Square Miles of New York State, but It Will Settle for Less
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Mon Apr 18 19:28:56 UTC 2005
Tribe Lays Claim to 3,100 Square Miles of New York State, but
It Will Settle for Less
By KIRK SEMPLE
The Onondaga Nation, an Indian tribe based in upstate New York, filed
a lawsuit yesterday claiming that it owns 3,100 square miles of land
stretching from the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Pennsylvania border and
The tribe contends that the State of New York illegally acquired the
land in a series of treaties between 1788 and 1822 and has asked the
Federal District Court in Syracuse to declare that it still holds
title to the land, which is now home to hundreds of thousands of
people and includes all or part of 11 counties.
It is the largest Indian land claim ever filed in the state. The tribe
said that it does not want all of that land, however, but that its
principal intent is to gain leverage to clean up polluted sites in the
land claim area.
The lawsuit names as defendants the State of New York, the City of
Syracuse and Onondaga County, as well as five corporations that, the
nation contends, have damaged the environment in the claim area.
Todd Alhart, a spokesman for Gov. George E. Pataki, said late
yesterday that the governor's office had not yet received a copy of
the claim. "We will take whatever steps may be necessary to protect
the interests of property owners and taxpayers in central New York,
the Southern Tier and the northern New York region," Mr. Alhart said.
Unlike other Indian tribes that have filed land claims against the
state, the Onondaga Nation, which has about 1,500 members, is not
seeking monetary damages or the right to operate casinos in New York.
Instead, tribal representatives said, the Onondagas want a declaratory
judgment saying the land, which they consider ancestral territory, was
They then hope to use such a ruling to force the cleanup of sites in
the claim area, particularly Onondaga Lake, a federal Superfund site
and one of the most contaminated bodies of water in the nation.
The Onondaga Nation has made the cleanup of the lake, which is 4.5
miles long and one mile wide, one of its priorities. The tribe has
lived near the lake for centuries and regards it as sacred land.
Tribal representatives said yesterday that the nation would not sue
individual property owners or try to evict them.
"The nation has said flat-out that individuals have nothing to worry
about," said Dan Klotz, a spokesman for the nation. The Onondagas, he
said, "will not waver from that."
Other pending Indian land claims in New York have not interfered with
property transactions, experts on Indian law said.
"They don't plan to press for eviction as a remedy and I don't think
there's ever been a court that has seriously considered eviction,"
said John Dossett, general counsel for the National Congress of
American Indians, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group for tribal
governments. "I think that homeowners can rest easy."
At the same time, however, tribal authorities said they were in the
market for more land. The nation's reservation is an 11-square-mile
parcel south of Syracuse. Joseph J. Heath, an attorney who represents
the Onondaga Nation, said if the court rules in the tribe's favor, he
expected that settlement talks with the state to follow, including
discussions about expanding the nation's reservation and protecting
ancestral burial grounds threatened by development.
Mr. Heath said the tribe would try to buy land only from "willing
sellers" and the government.
Still, Mr. Heath and other tribal representatives emphasized that the
tribe's main intent was to gain more influence over state
environmental policy and push for environmental cleanups in their
region. "They're sick of being ignored on environmental issues," Mr.
The tribe's elders have discussed filing suit for more than 50 years,
they said in interviews yesterday. But as the pollution in the lake
increased - and their own population expanded - they felt compelled to
take legal action.
Decades of industrial dumping left a layer of toxic sludge on the lake
bottom and drove the federal government to place it on the Superfund
list of toxic waste sites in 1994. Last November, state regulators
announced a plan to require Honeywell International to conduct a $448
million cleanup of the lake, including extensive dredging of the lake
bottom to remove much of the 165,000 pounds of mercury and other
toxins that have collected there.
Honeywell is one of five companies named in the Onondaga lawsuit. It
is responsible for the cleanup because in 1999 it merged with Allied
Chemical, which owned a plant that was accused of being one of the
lake's main polluters.
The Onondagas have called the cleanup plan inadequate and say the
state was legally obligated to consult with the tribe's chiefs but did
Mr. Alhart, the governor's spokesman, rejected the nation's assertion
that the state was being lax on the cleanup of Lake Onondaga or that
it had ignored the nation.
The lawsuit also names four other companies that operate a gravel
mine, limestone quarry and coal-burning power plant in the region. In
the lawsuit, the Onondagas also named Clark Concrete Company and a
subsidiary, Valley Realty Development, which own a gravel mine in
The nation has accused the mine of polluting the Onondaga Creek, which
runs into the lake. The nation also named Hanson Aggregates North
America, the owners of a limestone quarry in DeWitt, and Trigen
Syracuse Energy Corporation, a coal-burning power plant in Geddes.
Attempts made late yesterday to reach officials with those companies
Tribal representatives said yesterday that they were not seeking a
casino as part of a settlement of the claim. Casinos are a central
component of five Indian land claim settlement agreements that Gov.
George Pataki announced in recent months.
Michelle York contributed reporting from the Onondaga Indian
Reservation for this article.
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