Factionalism Destroys Our Land Claims

by Doug George-Kanentiio©

Ever since I was asked to serve the Mohawk Nation as a land claims negotiator in 1984 I was apprehensive about entering this area without the active support of our Iroquois relatives. I argued repeatedly that the manner, content and outcome of our negotiations with the US federal government and New York State officials would set a precedent for the other nations.

By going into these sessions alone and agreeing to the State's secrecy conditions we were making grave concessions which weakened our position since we could not inform our people of what we were discussing which meant we were vulnerable to all sorts of unfounded accusations. Further, we could not secure the support of the non-Natives in the effected areas. Since they were the voters and taxpayers I thought we should move aggressively to get their support.

We also made the mistake of failing to speak to our Mohawk kin in the other communities. They had, I believed, a right to know what their national government was doing in their name and on their behalf. We caved in to the US and state officials when we agreed to exclude representatives from the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, an omission which would have doomed any ultimate settlement since we had to have the approval of the Grand Council; or so I thought.

Since I was not prepared to concede to the US in such areas as jurisdiction, land concessions and land useage my removal as a negotiator was sought by the State and agreed to by our "team" in 1991.

Over the years I, along with many others, watched with alarm as the other Iroquois nations and entities fell into the same self serving trap. We were under the illusion that our opponents were prepared to agree to recognize our status as independent entities while supporting the expansion of our existing territories.

Our thinking was defensive, exclusionary and plain dumb. There was no way either the US or New York would ever acknowledge us as nations nor would they unconditionally return the lands they stole from us back to our jurisdiction. We found out through bitter experience that far from being honest, dependable and sincere our opponents were just that-opposed to our every attempt to recover from decades of colonialism. They would use every dirty tactic to abrogate our land claims. They would promote factionalism, offer bribes, use commercial gambling as bait and bring to bear the State's fiscal stranglehold over our economic survival.

In 1985 the Oneidas, then acting as one entity, won an historic victory in the US Supreme Court which held that they did have a tangible claim to their ancestral homelands. But that victory was qualified when the justices cited New York for failing to bring up the defense of laches, a position which means that if a plaintiff waits too long to bring suit they lose their claim. The Court practically rubbed the State's nose into this escape clause and, 20 years later, would award it an all encompassing win when it turned back the Oneidas in 2005.

But the Oneidas also dealt their case mortal harm when the New York faction broke from the other Oneidas and went into the Court alone. Any fool could have predicted the outcome. But, sad to state, the loss of the Oneida Nation of New York two years ago has caused major harm to all other Iroquois people and has hurt the cause of aboriginal sovereignty across the US.

It was no mere chance that shortly after the Oneida's 1985 win they entered into a time of anarchy and violence. When they should have affirmed their unity they allowed commercial gambling to enter their community and rip them into shreds. Beset by violence and accusations of corruption the New York Oneidas ceded power to a single person who took them out of the Confederacy and began a series of ill advised lawsuits which alienated the non-Natives and crystallized opposition to the Iroquois as a whole.

Skennenrahowi bundle of arrows was unraveled by Arthur Raymond Halbritter of the Oneida Nation of New York. This meant the Oneida people were alone before the combined power of the US and New York State. They did not have a chance. Officials in Albany and Washington allowed the Oneidas to operate a casino and to think they were somehow excluded from US jurisdiction but this was giving them just enough rope to hang themselves. But make no mistake, we at Akwesasne did our part in the unravelling when we elected to pursue a land claims deal without any regard to the other nations.