Thursday, July 14, 2005

because centuries of mass genocide just ain't enough

While this only specifically affects those in Central New York (and those on the Seneca-Cayuga reservation in Oklahoma), it's a dangerous precedent that this Second Circuit Court of Appeals is setting, and one that makes me rather nervous...

A bit of background:
The Cayuga Indian Nation of New York sued the State of New York in 1980, 25 years ago, for breach of treaty and illegal acquisition of tribal lands. After a long court battle, the Cayugas won their suit in 1994, receiving a $248 million land claim for 64,015 acres of tribal land in Seneca and Cayuga counties in central New York (along Cayuga Lake, one of the Finger Lakes).
The courts, in 1994, acknowledged that NY had indeed illegally seized these lands that were promised the Cayuga Nation in the (inevitably shafting) treaties the white folks made with the Native Americans way back when.

Since that court ruling, animosity between property owners and Native Americans has only grown, not least due to the "No Sovereign Nation" signs that line the main roads on both sides of the lake. There was even a sign I saw one day, driving up the west side of the lake, admonishing people for buying the tax-free gas and cigarettes on the reservation, basically saying it hurt businessowners and they were therefore no better than traitors. (And here's a picture of one such sign that some friends and I "borrowed" from a roadside one late night...)

On June 28th, a Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed this decision, deciding that "too much time had lapsed between the alleged treaty breaches and the filing of the claim."
Problem #1 with this: Did they expect the Cayugas/other Native American tribes, who were being sent to Oklahoma and given blankets ridden with the smallpox virus and being killed off in what can only be described as a mass genocide, to argue with these people who were killing them in disgusting numbers? And even if they did argue, how could you expect the Native Americans to be well-versed enough in Euro-American law to be able to contest these treaties that shafted them, or to challenge their oppressors when the land promised to them in these already unfair treaties was stolen from them?
Now, I'm not trying to place the Cayugas or any Native Americans 200ish years ago in a helpless victim place, but really, when your people are being subjected to mass genocide by a people who are technologically more "advanced" than you (read: they can kill you quicker), you can't really do much to protest this.

And Problem #2 with this decision: The Court acknowledges that the land was illegally seized. NewsDay has a decent article that explains fairly well the background of this situation, as well as the court's reasonings and reactions from local Native American leaders and scholars.
Like this one, from Robert Odawi Porter, director of Syracuse University's Center for Indigenous Law: "I don't know how the circuit court could come to its conclusion. It's clearly an erroneous interpretation. Even the circuit court said there was no question New York ... took tribal lands illegally. The courts have to provide for some type of remedy."
But the courts don't intend to. At least, not this court.

Local and state lawmakers were, of course, praising the Second Circuit Court's decision.
Our lovely governor (who doesn't have a clue, but somehow continues to get elected...) George E. Pataki called the decision "a tremendous victory for the property owners and taxpayers of central New York." Ok, so I'm a lowly student who doesn't own property and only pays taxes through my measly paychecks, but I'm still a voting member of New York State, and I do not see this as a victory. I'll thank you not to speak for me, Georgie.
And state Senator Mike Nozollio (R-Seneca county), who I had the (dis)pleasure of meeting when I went to Albany to lobby for TAP money, "Today’s decision validates my strong belief that this land claim is unjust to our homeowners and should effectively end almost three decades of legal harassment perpetrated in the courts by this land claim. This is a total victory for our property owners.”
What about the fact that stealing land was, and is, unjust to the Cayuga Nation?

Isn't it enough that we intended to (and almost did) kill off these people, just because we perceived them as a "threat" and "intruders" on "our" land? Isn't it enough that we just barely teach our children about the violence we inflicted on them, talking mildly about the Trail of Tears, but not ever using that horrendous "g" word (genocide), which would put us on the same level as those crazy terrorists over in the Middle East? Do we still have to create so much animosity between these people and "our people" that we go to such lengths as to post signs explaining how they're taking away business with their tax-free cigarettes and cheap(er) gas?

So thank you, imperialism. And thank you, colonialism, for never letting your devastating effects fade into the past. There's nothing like a wound that keeps getting scraped open time and time again.

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