Over eight years ago, the Onondaga Nation filed a land claim against New York state for over 4,000 square miles of land. The claim included Binghamton, Watertown, Syracuse, Cortland, Fulton and Oswego and totaled 2.56 million acres of property. On Oct. 15, 2013, the United States Supreme Court rejected the Onondaga Nation’s claim. The decision means that the Onondaga Nation will be denied “…recognition of this historic illegal taking of our land,” as attorney Joe Heath was quoted. This land claim was more than an attempt at recovering lost territory. It was a mechanism to pursue national recognition for the illegal seizure of lands from indigenous peoples. By denying the claim and others like it, we continue to deny Native Americans recognition for their losses and the financial reparation necessary to alleviate high rates of poverty among Indian reservations.
In the past 20 years, the Supreme Court approved a host of land claims proposed against the U.S. However, the claim put forth by the Onondaga Nation was considered, “inherently disruptive” to the areas affected. This is obvious. If the land claim were to pass, New York would most likely dissolve into bankruptcy or take on a significant financial burden. The Onondaga Nation’s response to this defense was far from sympathetic — “This is just another example of the shameful history of broken treaties, land thefts, forced removal and cultural genocide,” it said. Americans are often quick to assume that the statute of limitations ought to protect local residents from these extreme indigenous claims. Such a defense fails to recognize that reparations for land confiscation are key to fixing the poverty crisis in indigenous nations. The financial security of these peoples is an equally valid concern as the continued financial prosperity of New York state.
The level of destitution among indigenous peoples cannot be understated. One-fourth of the Native American population is in poverty, compared to the national average, a relatively stable 15 percent. The annual average income for Native Americans is about $30,000. The livelihood of these nations are dramatically threatened by the unusually high instances of poverty.
In 1990, the federal government granted the Seneca Nation $60 million in reparations. These reparations allowed for effective financial improvements to the livelihoods of those affected by poverty and lack of opportunities. Although a land claim stretching between New York’s northern and southern borders may seem far-fetched, granting Native American tribes financial compensation for these illegally confiscated lands is a feasible alternative.
Land claims should not be carelessly tossed aside as unrealistic and irrational. The claims are valid, organized and important representations of American history. The Seneca Nation, the Cherokee Nation and Narragansett Tribe have all been aided by the granting of land claims. The Onondaga Nation has not. The state of New York owes some monetary compensation to the nation. If Americans care to see indigenous peoples survive, extreme poverty on Native American reservations needs to be addressed and solved. The first step is providing federal compensation to indigenous peoples for all that they have lost.