On August 18 delegates from the Haudenosaunee and other Iroquois entities met in Rochester to discuss how to respond to New York's plan to impose taxes on tobacco sales to non-Natives even if such transactions take place on Native territory.
A vague public statement was issued by the delegates affirming our treaty status and standing as Native nations but no explanation was given as to the inclusion of those who had previously taken a harsh stance against the Confederacy.
Specifically, the so-called "Oneida Indian Nation" and Seneca Nation of Indians had been adamantly opposed to the Confederacy's 1997 Trade and Commerce compact which would have removed the threat of New York or US taxes permanently while centralizing the marketing of tobacco under the authority of the Haudenosaunee.
The OIN and SNI succeeded in destroying the Compact because they used selective confrontation and the threat of violence not only against New York but the traditional leadership of the Confederacy as well.
Despite this, the Rochester session went ahead but no mention was made of a far more important issue: that of our land claims.
A few weeks ago the US Court of Appeals denied the Oneida Indian Nation's claims to land in central New York. This ruling was predictable given the 2005 Sherrill decision in which the OIN's lawsuit, based on its land claim, was decisively rejected by the US Supreme Court.
This latest defeat brings an end to every Iroquois land claim; the decision will have a bad effect on other Native nations as well. It removes any possibility the courts will order the return of land stolen from us and also eliminates monetary compensation.
Decades of work, and generations of hopes, have been dashed because the Oneida Indian Nation broke away from the rest of the Iroquois and pursued a legal strategy which was bound to fail. It was impractical, and illogical, for the OIN to expect any US court to acknowledge its claim to be a truly sovereign entity with exclusive jurisdiction over millions of acres of land now occupied by tens of thousands of American citizens.
Because of the OIN loss the Haudenosaunee are at a serious disadvantage when it comes to seeking to expand our existing territories or in negotiating exemption from state sales taxes. The OIN has already volunteered to pay local land taxes in Madison and Oneida counties and it has sought to have lands it has purchased placed into US federal trust which means it agrees that the actual title to its territory is held by the Americans who in turn "grant" Natives rights of "occupancy".
The OIN, by this decision, also concedes to the Doctrine of Discovery, a Catholic edict by which European Christian nations were given the right to possess all Native lands with the indigenous peoples subject to their control. The Doctrine has been vigorously opposed by the Haudenosaunee but remains the foundation of all US-Indian law. But no traditional leader has condemned the OIN for seeking federal trust, nor has any rotiiane, kontiianeshon or roterihonton/iakoterihonton addressed the land claims issue.
It would seem that our relationship with the living earth, both spiritual and physical, is the reason we have a distinct aboriginal culture, it is the reason we exist as Onkwehonweh. Once alienated from the natural world we become consumers and the earth is merely another commodity. Without the benefit of traditional knowledge we don't have to be concerned about the rights of other species, nor do we have to consider the rights of those whose faces are in the earth.
We can make those fatal compromises unburdened by conscience.
And that is what is frightening about this tobacco controversy. Some among us are willing to defend the marketing of this product of death but will do nothing to physically stand up for iethinistenha ohontia.
If we do not then the Ohenton Karihwatehkwen becomes just a prayer and the ceremonies mere rituals. It seems to me that when our leaders recite the Thanksgiving Address it is a call to act to protect those very elements we acknowledge as essential to our well being. I don't know if any Iroquois entity has ever used the Address in their land claims but perhaps they should have done so.
Only now its too late.
I understand the need to stop New York from collecting taxes but should our leaders also stop those on our territories who are already pay state and federal taxes? Should we remove this contradiction before it is used against us?
Some will say I am an unrelenting critic of the Oneida Indian Nation and the tobacco retail millionaires but I have, since my work for the Mohawk Nation 25 years ago, seen the danger of taking our collective and historical claims into ignorant and the hostile US courts. It was a gamble we could not win. I favoured direct action, aggressive public relations and negotiating from a place or moral and physical strength.
I have also called into question the creation of an artificial class of wealthy individuals operating without effective centralized control, a jealous, insecure class whose fortunes are based on the sale of a product which is causing the death of tens of thousands of people. There was certain to be spiritual and physical consequences.
When we needed unity in 1997 we succumbed to the manipulations of officials in Albany and Washington. We failed to provide the Oneida people with guidance and support when they sought a restoration of traditional government which may have prevented the recent setbacks. We did not act to diffuse the orchestrated protests in 1997 by meeting directly with the people at Oneida and Cattaraugus to explain the Trade and Commerce compact. We did not provide the people with a plan for a diversified economy nor did we take a strong stance five years ago when the US Supreme Court cited the Doctrine of Discovery in its denial of the Oneida land claims.
So now there is "unity" on the tobacco issue? If this can be sustained then it may perhaps be expanded t the far more important issue of our ancestral lands.
At the very least the leadership must learn from the events of 13 years ago and do a much better job of informing the people, rallying their support and finally providing us with a way to bring this the tobacco under the control of a strong Confederacy.
George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is the former editor of Akwesasne Notes, a
co-founder of the Native American Journalists Association as well as a former
member of the Board of Trustees for the National Museum of the American Indian.
He is the author of "Iroquois on Fire' and resides in Oneida Castle, NY.
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