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Indian Land ClaimsResearch Paper

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Iroquois Land

One of the most interesting legal questions in modern property law relates to claims by the Iroquois that the government, both the United States government and state governments, engaged in an illegal taking of their land and seeking return of that land. While it is well-known that the U.S. government took Native American land as its property, since most private, public, and governmental property in the United States was, at one time, considered the territory of some group of Native Americans. While the circumstances surrounding most of these land transfers were clearly advantageous to the U.S. government or state governments and coercive, at best, to the Native American groups in question, many of the underlying treaties were signed by people in positions of power in the various Native American nations, tribes, or groups and in accordance with the U.S. laws governing the formation of treaties with Indian nations.

However, the Iroquois claims are seen as being somewhat different from other claims for two reasons. First, some of the allegations are based on the notion that the treaties made between the State of New York and at least certain nations in the Six Nation Iroquois Confederacy (Haudenosaunee) were not signed by people in positions of power. Second, and more importantly, the Iroquois allege that the lands were unlawfully taken in violation of federal laws and treaties, most specifically the federal Trade and Intercourse Acts, 25 U.S.C.S. § 1777. Furthermore, they suggest that the United States knew this was occurring and failed to intervene and prevent it from happening, despite having an obligation, in many instances, to protect Iroquois interests, because they were allies under other treaties or agreements. If this is case, then the Iroquois allege that the treaties, themselves, are invalid, and that they are entitled to the return of their land.

Further complicating the issue is the fact that the State of New York initially denied any wrongdoing. "Because of the turmoil and power allocations stemming from the Articles of Confederation, passed in 1781, and then the federal Constitution, ratified by New York in 1788, New York claimed the Non-Intercourse Act did not apply to its actions with tribes within its borders" (Fort, p. 6). In fact, the State actively interfered in treaty negotiations between the federal government and those tribes located within its borders in order to secure more Native American land (Fort, p.6).

The time of the wrong was so long ago that, legally, had the wrong occurred between two individuals, it would be impossible for any subsequent parties to seek redress. After all, it was during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that New York State engaged in an effort to gather Iroquois lands. It did so in two ways. First, the state purchased some of the land. Second, the state seized some of the land. However, any transactions involving Indian land were subject to Congressional ratification and New York never sought ratification of its actions, but, instead, took the land without getting Congressional approval. The actions were illegal, and, perhaps more importantly, were not actions between individuals, but actions between governments, which would not be impacted by the same statutes of limitations as property actions between individuals. In fact, in the first lawsuit filed by an Iroquois Nation, the Supreme Court determined that "state statutes of limitations and other state law defenses were not applicable to such suits, and that title to lands taken in violation of the Trade and Intercourse Acts remains with the Indian owner" (Onondada Nation, n.p.).

Even if state statutes of limitations were not applicable, the Iroquois could still have faced a defense known as laches. In a laches defense, "A defendant argues the plaintiff delayed too long in bringing the claim, and the defendant was harmed by the delay. Essentially laches is a form of prejudicial delay" (Fort, pp.9-10). The Counties argued that the 175-year delay between the last agreement and the first lawsuit was too long of a delay, that they had relied upon the delay to their detriment, and that they were harmed by their delayed. However, it is important to realize that the Iroquois were not intentionally delaying efforts to secure the return of their land. They had been seeking redress for years, but found their efforts hampered through both official and unofficial stumbling blocks. They had begun protesting the taking of their lands as early as 1846, when the final agreement with the State was signed. They had a problem finding an appropriate venue for their protests, and had initially sought redress in other ways, not going to the court system. When they did turn to the court system, they had difficulties in getting courts to assert jurisdiction. Therefore, a laches defense is problematic. Rather than plaintiffs who engaged in an intentional delay to harm the defendants, the Iroquois emerged as plaintiffs who had spent years searching for a way to right a wrong.

Unfortunately, the problem of finding the appropriate venue to redress the issue continues to plague the Iroquois. While many of the Iroquois Nations have valid claims and have been awarded judgments against the State, they are unable to secure enforcement of those judgments and the only court that could actually enforce the judgments, the Supreme Court, has declined to hear their cases. The result is that they have judgments that are essentially meaningless, and, with the State of New York unwilling to engage in meaningful settlement negotiations with them, they may be forced to file suit against individual landowners, which is something that they have been trying to avoid. In order to understand this, one must look into the history of the lawsuits by the various Iroquois nations.

In 1970, the Oneidas were the first Iroquois nation to file a lawsuit for their land claim in a federal court, but it would be decades before that dispute was resolved. The basis of those claims goes back to 1788, when representative of the State of New York "led the Oneidas to believe that they had lost their land to an investment company, though this was untrue, and that the state simply wanted to help them recover the title. Through this deception, New York acquired some five million acres for $2,000 in cash, $2,000 in clothing, $1,000 in provisions, and $600 in annual rent" (Harnden, pp.10-11). Over the next 50 years, the State enacted similar ploys, which resulted in the Oneidas losing all of their territory. The Oneidas received a 32 acre reservation in 1920, but that was a very insignificant portion of the immense land that they had once controlled in the area.

It is important to keep in mind that the very fact that the State existed was a type of pressure on the tribes. The settlers were encroaching on land that had traditionally been within their territory and the Iroquois may have had different ideas about land ownership, but those different ideas did not alter the amount of people that a land could comfortably support. In addition, because the Iroquois had been involved in several wars, they were feeling tremendous pressure. As a result, they:

became easy prey for the high-pressure tactics of the state. New York maneuvered the Cayugas into agreements in 1789, 1795, and later that took away all their land. In 1788, the Onondagas sold to the state all but a hundred square-mile reservation, then ceded two-thirds of that in 1793. In 1796, Mohawks who had moved to Canada ceded to New York all Mohawk land in the state except for some small tracts along the St. Lawrence River -- but the Mohawk nation in New York was not a party to the agreement. In 1797, the Senecas lost most of their remaining land to financier Robert Morris of Philadelphia, who prepared for the negotiations by first laying aside a store of clothing for the women, bribe money for the men, and whiskey -- later calculated at 25 gallons a day for 30 days. The Senecas moved onto small reservations (Harnden, p.11).

Many modern observers have a difficult time understanding how they could be so easily manipulated, but the treaties were written in English, translated by agents of the State, and in contravention of protections that the Iroquois knew existed for them. There were also tremendous cultural differences at play; it would have been culturally unacceptable to the Iroquois to swindle people out of land, so that they would have been unprepared to be victims of such a crime.

The lawsuit filed by the Oneidas against the State of New York was actually a test case, not only for the Oneidas, but for all of the Iroquois, and the biggest question in the case was whether the tribe would even be granted the "right to be heard in court on the land claim" (Fort, p. 7). 1985, the Supreme Court granted judgment in favor of the Oneidas, but did not offer any real relief to the Oneidas. The result was that the Oneidas and the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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