Onondagas Claim 4,000 Square Miles of New York State, Want Environmental Cleanup

The Onondaga Indian Nation laid claim to this city and thousands more square kilometers (square miles) of upstate New York in a federal lawsuit filed Friday.

SYRACUSE, New York — The Onondaga Indian Nation laid claim to this city and thousands more square kilometers (square miles) of upstate New York in a federal lawsuit filed Friday.

Other tribes have used such lawsuits to get casinos, but Onondaga leaders say their objectives are a cleaner environment and a bigger reservation.

Leaders of the 1,500-member tribe say they want the state to clean up hazardous sites in the 10,240-square-kilometer (4,000-square-mile) land-claim area -- specifically a Syracuse lake they consider sacred that is among the world's most polluted bodies of water.

"Our concern is for the water, the land, the air. They are not well," said Sid Hill, the tribe's spiritual leader. "It is the duty of the nation's leaders to work for a healing of this land, to protect it, and to pass it on to future generations."

The lawsuit lays claim to Onondaga Lake, regarded as the birthplace of the Iroquois Confederacy, among 10,240 square kilometers (4,000 square miles) stretching from Pennsylvania to Canada and including Syracuse, Binghamton, Watertown and other cities. About 875,000 people live in the claim area.


The Onondagas are the last tribe of the original Iroquois Confederacy to file a claim alleging that New York state illegally took possession of its lands beginning more than two centuries ago.

Five other tribes reached settlements with Gov. George Pataki last year to drop their land claims in exchange for the governor pushing to authorize the creation of five Las Vegas-style casinos in the Catskills. The deals require the approval of the Legislature and Congress by Sept. 1.

Hill and other Onondaga leaders on Friday reiterated their opposition to casinos.

"It is New York's strategy to split us up," Hill said. "Divide and conquer. You can see the casino deals are splitting nations."

Casinos have been a popular business for many U.S. Indian groups. Because tribes are sovereign nations, they don't have to pay state or local taxes and are exempt from most zoning and other laws.

The Onondaga tribe wants a court to rule that New York illegally acquired 95 percent of its land in five treaties between 1788 and 1822, and that the region belongs to the Onondaga Nation.

Although the lawsuit does not seek monetary damages, eviction of residents or rental payments, Onondaga leaders said they would use a favorable decision to negotiate a settlement that would allow the tribe to purchase land to expand its 28-square-kilometer (11-square-mile) reservation south of Syracuse.

The tribe also is seeking the cleanup of 92 polluted sites in the land claim area, including Onondaga Lake, where Allied Signal Corp. is blamed for dumping 74,000 kilograms (165,000 pounds) of mercury over a quarter century.

It's suing the state, Onondaga County, the city of Syracuse and five corporations -- including Honeywell International, which merged with Allied Signal in 1999.

Honeywell has proposed spending $237 million (euro176 million) to eliminate environmental hazards by capping the lake, but the Onondagas say the plan is inadequate.

Pataki spokesman Todd Alhart said state attorneys will review the lawsuit and do whatever is necessary to protect property owners and taxpayers. He also defended Pataki's environmental record.

"The cleanup and revitalization of Onondaga Lake continues to be one of the state's highest priorities," Alhart said.

Source: Associated Press