Iroquois get $29,034 a year for N.Y. land

State tries to obtain out-of-court settlements for property rights

January 20, 2000|By Albany Times Union

ALBANY, N.Y. -- Every year, New York honors 200-year-old land deals with American Indians by sending Iroquois nations $29,034, plus a few tons of salt. The payment compensates the Indians for the hundreds of thousands of acres that now make up dozens of towns across upstate New York.

But those land deals and many more like them were illegal, according to the nation's highest court. And state taxpayers owe the Iroquois millions of dollars.

Indians argued for decades that they were terribly shortchanged, and in 1985, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in their favor, saying that the state broke the law in taking Indian lands. No longer is there any question that taxpayers in the state will have to atone for the sins of their forefathers. Left unanswered is the cost.

In an effort to avoid court judgments that could run into the billions of dollars, the state is trying to reach out-of-court settlements with various Indian nations. Land that is now owned privately, and in some cases has been in a family for generation upon generation, is being claimed by Indians, armed with treaties identifying the boundaries of their reservations.

The modern dispute has its genesis in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the state illegally struck illegal deals with the Iroquois, taking millions of acres and then selling the land at a profit or doling it out in lieu of pay to the men who fought the Revolutionary War. In many cases, the deals were struck with chiefs who didn't understand the European concept of land ownership. Some tribal leaders thought they were simply sharing their vast homelands.

"When you get to the heart of the matter, no one owns the land," said James Ransom, land claim adviser and a Mohawk who lives at the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation in Akwesasne. "The whole concept of selling the land, from our end, was a foreign concept."

In other cases, individuals without authorization to represent Indian nations made pacts essentially selling property that wasn't theirs to sell. And in others, the state preyed on Indians who were willing to sell a few hundred thousand acres for a few hundred dollars. Over time, that land became the towns, cities and farms of much of upstate New York.

The state sends $23,972 annually to the Cayuga Indian Nation, a now landless clan of about 500 American Indians. That's the payment for 64,000 acres of prime real estate along the northern shores of Cayuga Lake in the Finger Lakes region. New York also sends $2,430 a year plus 150 bushels of salt, worth $1,845 at current market prices, to the Onondaga Indian Nation, in payment for what is now the city of Syracuse and some salt mines.

Those deals and others, according to the 1985 Supreme Court ruling, are void. A 1790 law, the Indian Trade and Intercourse Act, enacted by Congress and designed to protect the Indians from land-grabbers, requires federal approval of all such transactions. New York never bothered to get many approvals, perhaps, some historians believe, because the state knew the federal government would not condone such unfair transactions.

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