Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Tribe Landing No Sovereign Title

National sovereignty.

It plays a key role in how the United States interacts within the international community.

But according to Native American tribes, our government has been woefully derelict in honoring the sovereignty of nations within our borders.  Native American nations, to be specific.  Today, one such tribe, New York State's Onondaga Nation, held a press conference at Washington DC's National Press Club to seek public support in their quest for appealing their long-running Lands Rights Action.  All in the hopes of getting some respect for their status as a sovereign nation.

Technically, the Onondagas are part of central New York's Haudenosaunee, or Six Nations Confederacy, which had been formed years before the Revolutionary War.  George Washington himself, grateful for the assistance his troops received from the Onondagas during the war, honored them with a wampum belt to commemorate the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua, in which Washington pledged tribespeople "the free use and enjoyment" of their ancestral land.

Who Got "Free Use?"

Of course, what Washington likely meant by "free use and enjoyment" hasn't turned into what we find today, where among 7,000 acres south of Syracuse, a scattering of aging homes and meager farms constitute what's left of the once-sprawling Onondaga territory.  In terms of sovereignty, their national economy, such as it is, consists of a tax-free cigarette shop and a lacrosse arena.  They also run their own water system, fire department, and spiritual healing center.

Not only has the Colonial America which swallowed up huge chunks of Native American land itself been transformed in terms of land ownership, however, but the footprint of non-Native civilization has been contaminated by pollution.  Particularly in New York State, which for decades was a mighty manufacturing zone.  Staggering amounts of chemical byproducts from all that manufacturing turned what had once been pristine hunting grounds for non-mechanical tribes into vast Super Fund sites.

Only now is Central New York beginning to recover ecologically from the pollution dumped into its streams and lakes, and allowed to leach into fields and forests.  The major lake near Syracuse, Onondaga Lake, remains one of the most polluted bodies of water in the United States.  Allied-Signal, Inc., the predecessor to today's Honeywell, Inc., was the most significant polluter on the lake for almost a century, and after years of lawsuits, is in the middle of a $451 million remediation program designed to mitigate the worst of their contamination legacy.

The pollution of Onondaga Lake not only represents the story of why industrialization has been forced out of the United States, since the lessons of Onondaga Lake helped create our country's strong environmental laws.  The lake's pollution also represents a key element in the Onondaga Nation's persistence in pursuing their claims to and rights of sovereignty in the courts.  Over the years, in treaties and other assurances from state and federal authorities, the Onondagas were told that the lake, which comprises much of their folklore and spirituality, would be fully restored so they could fish and perform sacred rituals in it. 

Although some species of fish have started to flourish again in the lake, it's hardly the pure body of water it was when George Washington was alive.  Neither is Central New York's air as pure, or its land as organically fertile.  But as they work their way through the courts, the Onondagas know they'll never get all of their land back.  At least, they say they know that.  They say they simply want to win a case to prove that the American and New York State governments need to work much harder at protecting the environment.  For example, they say that to completely clean up Onondaga Lake to their satisfaction would cost at least $2.16 billion.  A cost nobody wants to pay, but a cost that may be due if the Onondagas win in court.

And for the record, not only would taxpayers be on the hook for that $2.16 billion, but Honeywell, as Allied-Signals' successor, would be as well.

Deconstructing Sovereignty

Veiling their intentions behind the cloak of environmentalism has won the Onondagas many friends in high places among the liberal echelons of New York State, Washington DC, and advocates for indigenous groups worldwide.  Even more sympathy has been garnered by people who hold disjointed assumptions about American history, land title law, and the concept of national sovereignty.  Indeed, being able to make their case from a podium at the National Press Club, with other support from the World Court and the United Nations, has impressed the Onondagas with the hope of one day winning the respect of ordinary Americans.  And asserting at least some of the authority they used to hold in Central New York.

Yet that authority they used to hold, back even before the Revolutionary War:  how was that authority secured?  How was the sovereignty they claim to have held hundreds of years ago obtained?  Surely, as people groups made their way across the land bridge from eastern Asia to North America, they didn't just agreeably parcel out chunks of land amongst themselves.  They had their own wars, didn't they?  Which means power was secured through dominance.

Did the Onondagas ever take the land of another tribe without the procedural protocol of title transfers?

Of course not!  "Title," such as it was, was ceded by a weaker power to a more authoritative power.  Hundreds of years ago, that authority was wielded by the bow and arrow.  During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, authority was wielded by the governments of New York State and the United States of America.

Conquest is never an easy concept for the vanquished.  And nobody can say that European settlers arriving on America's eastern shores treated the "natives" they found here well.  By almost all accounts, human rights abuses were rampant when it came to the people we today call "Native Americans."  Does that negate the human rights abuses those Native Americans perpetrated amongst themselves before our national ancestors arrived?  Of course not, but it does prove that conquest is a part of history - both theirs and ours, and a part of the transfer of property.

Doctrine of Discovery

Actually, the whole "theirs" and "ours" narrative is what's really fueling the national sovereignty debate for the Onondagas.  Whereas they've been able to benefit from the same undeniable benefits which come from living in the United States, such as the world's most robust economy, and one of the world's most admired judicial systems, they pay no taxes towards those benefits.  Our military protects them, our roadways transport them, and our schools educate them.  If they really want Americans to take their claims of sovereignty seriously, they'd erect border crossings, mint their own currency, and draft their own currency.

At this point, liberals who advocate for indigenous sovereignty rights start to roll their eyes, claiming that such protestations represent a juvenile position which belittles the history of tribes like the Onondagas.  They'd point to the Supreme Court's widely-derided Doctrine of Discovery, which in 1823 basically asserted that when a superior people group discover an inferior people group, the superior folks get to set the rules going forward.

And in terms of the logic behind the Doctrine of Discovery, it's true that a ridiculous amount of ethnocentrism helped guide its creation.  Its basis lies in decrees issued by the Roman Catholic Church during its blatant empire-building of the 15th Century, in which only "heathen" countries, not countries already ruled by Catholics, could be plundered.

Now, it takes a strange person indeed to argue that indigenous people groups invaded by Westerners would have been better-off in the long run without the scientific, medical, and economic advances ultimately extended to these cultures.  Criticize the greed of people like Christopher Columbus all you like, but you can't deny that the Americas are worse off today than they were in 1491.  Especially if the notoriously ruthless invaders from ancient Asia had beat Columbus to the west coast of the Western Hemisphere.

In essence, the Doctrine of Discovery has evolved to mean that "what's done is done."  You can't go back and re-write history.  And when it comes to Native Americans and how they were treated by their new European neighbors, that can seem a particularly bitter fact.

Reparations is a word fraught with consternation.  Reparations after World War II, as Jews, even to this day, fight to both recover items their families lost to the Nazis and receive financial compensation for their ordeal, have proven to be tough cases to prove, even with their history being as relatively recent as it is.  American blacks of pre-Civil-War ancestry have been agitating for years for reparations, but two of the critical questions nobody can answer are how much, and to whom?

At the end of the day, perhaps the Onondaga's fight isn't so much to prove their sovereignty - since, as even their advocates must at least secretly acknowledge, they have no sovereignty in the strict sense of the word.  No, their fight is about reparations, even though they've insisted they don't want their land back.

Unfortunately for the Onondagas, reparations will be just as elusive for them as sovereignty has been.

That's not a happy answer.  That's not a healing answer.  That's probably not a productive answer.

But it's the truth.  And at the end of the day, isn't truth what we all really want?

Today, one of the Onondaga Nation's leaders, evoking the memory of our country's first president and his affection for the Onondagas, pleaded, "if... you can’t keep George Washington’s words, whose words can you keep?”

To turn the phrase of another president we couldn't trust, "it depends on what your definition of 'free' is."
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