Chief gambles on settlement to buoy Indians

Onondagas seek to upgrade 7,300-acre reservation in New York

January 20, 2000|By James M. Odato | James M. Odato,Albany Times Union

ONONDAGA NATION -- Irving Powless Jr., the 69-year-old chief of the Onondaga Indian Nation, longs to see the day when his people enjoy economic stability and independence - and not from the revenue of a casino or a bingo hall.

Rather, Powless, whose tribe opposes gambling, hopes that a settlement with the state of New York over ancient land claims will bring his brethren the assets they desperately need to upgrade their 7,300-acre reservation south of Syracuse.

"We have lived in this area for 1,200 years," said Powless, a robust man who recalls with pride when, a generation ago, he competed against football great Jim Brown in a lacrosse match and knocked the powerful All-American and Hall of Fame fullback off his feet. "There was fresh water, fresh air, no pollution."

Today, the Onondagas are neither financially wealthy nor land rich. Pollution, from a dump and from a petroleum spill at a cigarette shop, has fouled the Indian territory.

"We're considered poor," Powless said. "How do you measure that? ... How many homeless people do you have in your city? We have zero."

'Living in abject poverty'

Members of the tribe have a right to live on the reservation, but many survive on low-wage jobs and welfare the consequence of a people "living in abject poverty" for 200 years, according to Robert Coulter, a lawyer with the Indian Law Resource Center, a nonprofit group that is helping the Onondagas on their proposed claim.

The Onondagas haven't yet gone to court to stake their land claim, but the nation is building a case against the state of New York that would follow suits filed by other Iroquois nations - the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida and Seneca - with the federal government as co-plaintiff. Several Indian law and history experts believe the Onondaga case would be very strong.

The tribe has identified a 10-mile-square section of Onondaga County as an area to which it lays claim. The land includes a mile surrounding Onondaga Lake and most of Syracuse, a city of 163,000 in upstate New York. That represents a fraction of the acreage that the Onondagas controlled more than two centuries ago.

Powless said he has been hearing about land claims since he was a boy growing up on the reservation, where his father, Irving Powless Sr., also served as chief. Powless views the reservation as an island representing the hundreds of thousands of acres wrongfully taken and poorly used by "the Europeans" who obtained Indian properties illegally. He smiles as he talks about his boyhood on the Onondaga territory, where he learned to fish, hunt and play sports.

A powerful chief

One of the top three officers among the 14 chiefs of the Onondagas, Powless has proved to have a tough side. And some Onondaga members feel Powless is too powerful.

"No one can have anything unless you go through him," says Alice Thompson, 64, who lives on the reservation. Thompson, according to Powless, was part of an insurgent group that wanted to overthrow his government.

A land-claim settlement might ease some of the tensions that remain. It could boost the tribal government's popularity, pay for toxic waste cleanups and help the Onondaga government afford better educational, cultural and social programs.

Powless said the Onondaga people want to work with the community outside the reservation to improve the economy of the region, perhaps creating tourism destinations that might include Indian culture, or setting up a free-trade zone at unused manufacturing sites.

The Onondagas say they don't intend to threaten eviction of property owners in whatever suit they file, unlike the Cayugas and Oneidas. But they have not ruled out governmental and commercial property holders as targets for eviction.

"Maybe they should be subjected to some of the things we were subjected to such as taking your land away from you for 200 years," Powless said.

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