Joe Heath, general counsel for the Onondaga Nation, walks into...

Joe Heath, general counsel for the Onondaga Nation, walks into the Nation's Longhouse for a meeting, Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023, on the Onondaga Nation territory in central New York. Credit: AP/Lauren Petracca

ONONDAGA NATION TERRITORY — The Onondaga Nation has protested for centuries that illegal land grabs shrank its territory from what was once thousands of square miles in upstate New York to a relatively paltry patch of land south of Syracuse.

It took its case to President George Washington, to Congress and, more recently, to a U.S. court.

All failed.

So now the nation is presenting its case to an international panel. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights recently allowed the Onondagas to pursue claims their land was taken unjustly by New York state, providing a unique venue for a land rights case against the United States by a Native American nation.

The U.S. government is not expected to abide by any opinion by the commission, which is part of the Organization of American States, a pro-democracy grouping of Western Hemisphere nations.

The Onondagas say they don't want to force people from their homes. But they hope the novel case, which is being watched by other indigenous advocates, brings them closer to negotiations that might lead to the return of some land.

“We had to adapt to the coming of our white brother to our lands,” said Sid Hill, the Tadodaho, or chief, of the Onondaga Nation. “And we just feel that with the talk about justice and equality and all these issues, then why isn’t it there for us?"

A man walks outside the Onondaga Nation's longhouse, where meetings...

A man walks outside the Onondaga Nation's longhouse, where meetings and ceremonies are held, Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023, on the Onondaga Nation Territory in central New York. The Nation's territory once stretched more than 2 million acres. The present-day territory, just south of Syracuse, is approximately 7,300 acres. Credit: AP/Lauren Petracca

Once the Onondaga Nation's territory stretched nearly 4,000 square miles (10,000 square kilometers) in what is now New York.

Today, the federally recognized territory consists of 7,500 gently rolling acres (3,000 hectares) south of Syracuse. About 2,000 people live there, many in single-family homes on wooded lots. A tax-free smoke shop sits just off the interstate. A wooden longhouse used for meetings sits deeper in the territory, testimony to the residents' adherence to traditional ways.

Many feel crowded on their reduced land. They can't even fish the territory's creek because decades of salt mining upstream muddied the waters.

“We have freedom, but it’s on a pinhead,” said Kent Lyons, who has lived on the territory since 1970.

Jeanne Shanendoah holds out a plant to smell for Elizabeth...

Jeanne Shanendoah holds out a plant to smell for Elizabeth Rule, deputy secretary for First Nations, Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023, on the Onondaga Nation territory in central New York. Rule's position was recently created by New York Gov. Kathy Hochul's administration. Credit: AP/Lauren Petracca

The Onondaga's case centers on a roughly 40-mile-wide (65-kilometer-wide) strip of land running down the center of upstate New York from Canada to Pennsylvania. They claim ancestral land was appropriated over decades by New York, starting in 1788, through deceitful maneuvers that violated treaties and federal law.

The 1788 sale of some 3,125 square miles (8,100 square kilometers) was agreed to by “wrong-headed people” who were unauthorized Onondaga negotiators, according to a letter to George Washington from the Onondagas and fellow members of the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, Confederacy.

The nation received $33,380, an annuity of $2,430, clothes worth $1,000 and 150 bushels of salt for their land over several decades. They lost wide expanses of land where they once hunted, fished and lived.

The Onondagas have effectively spent more than 200 years seeking recognition their land was unlawfully taken. They're not seeking money as reparations, but land. Though Syracuse and crowded suburbs sit on much of the ancestral territory, nation attorney Joe Heath said there's land that could be made available, such as state parcels.

“We’re not going to take land from people that don’t want to give it,” he said.

The nation filed a federal lawsuit in 2005 claiming the illegally acquired land was still theirs. A judge dismissed the claim five years later, ruling it came too late and would be disruptive to people settled on the land.

"So what about our disruption?” Hill asked recently on a break for a longhouse meeting.

After the court loss, the Onondaga Nation and the Haudenosaunee petitioned the commission in 2014, alleging violations of provisions of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man. Two claims were ruled admissible in May. Now the commission can consider the merits of whether the nation's rights to equality under the law and judicial protection were violated.

Heath said this was the first land rights case admitted by the commission from a Native American nation against the U.S., though it has heard other Indigenous cases against the United States.

What will the U.S. do if the commission issues an opinion on merits favoring the Onondaga Nation?

If history is a guide, not much.

The U.S. is an influential member of the OAS. But human rights experts note that commission opinions are not considered legally binding to the U.S., which resists having international bodies telling it what to do.

“The State Department sends their professional lawyers, who are very talented, to make the arguments. And they participate. And then at the end of the day they’ll say, ‘But this is all non-binding, so we’re not going to follow it,’” said Paolo Carozza, a Notre Dame Law School professor and former commission president.

Notably, the U.S. took no action after the commission in 2002 found it failed to ensure the rights of two Western Shoshone Nation sisters in Nevada who argued they were denied use of their ancestral lands, according to attorneys.

The U.S. has already argued in response to the Onondaga petition that the commission has no business “second-guessing the considered decisions” of domestic courts.

A State Department spokesperson said in an email that the U.S. takes seriously petitions filed against it before the commission, calling that a “critical regional human rights body.”

In the end, the nation's biggest gain in pursuing the case is likely to be attracting more attention to Onondaga's 240-year-old argument. Carozza said a ruling in favor of the nation also would add “moral weight” to their cause.

"I think a recognition that the human rights of Onondaga and other tribal nations have been violated is a powerful recognition and can be utilized in numerous ways of advocacy, and potentially be used in the courts down the line,” said Matthew Campbell, deputy director of the Native American Rights Fund.

While an opinion could be years off, the Onondagas are used to waiting. Jeanne Shenandoah, who has spent decades working to reclaim nation lands, said they will never give up hope.

“We are here, and have never not been here. People don’t realize that,” she said outside the longhouse. “And that’s why that acknowledgement is so important.”

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