Law of the Land The Onondaga Nation's Lawsuit Seeks to Revive a River

Brad Powless looks across the rushing stream that runs by his house on the Onondaga Nation Territory just south of Syracuse, New York. His five-year-old daughter Sophie stands nearby, giggling and tossing stones as the creek gurgles its way toward Onondaga Lake.

New York’s Onondaga Lake has long been an industrial center, but now Native Americans are suing to clean it up.© EPA/

It was along streams like these that Powless’ people helped form the Haudenosaunee, a peaceful, democratic alliance of six Native-American tribes that covered much of what is now New York State and served as a model for the U.S. Constitution. It was also along these streams that the white man’s armies marched to conquer the Onondaga settlements that lined the water’s banks. It was also in streams like these that the gradual destruction of the Onondagas’ homeland took place.

Powless says that, decades ago, the industrial projects of Allied Chemical polluted the stream’s headwaters near the town of Tully, creating mudboils that clouded the water and killed trout the tribe depended on for food. Today, this little stream runs into Onondaga Creek and then into Onondaga Lake, a body of water considered sacred by the Onondagas but now viewed as one of the most polluted waters in the world.

Powless, one of the current tribe’s 14 chiefs, said it’s for the health of these waters, and for the future of Onondaga children like Sophie, that the nation in March filed a federal lawsuit laying claim to about 4,000 square miles of land the Onondagas say was illegally seized from them by the state of New York more than 200 years ago.

The 40-mile-wide swath of land, which runs from Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence Seaway in the north to the Pennsylvania border in the south, represents roughly 95 percent of the land once belonging to the Onondagas before a series of questionable treaties from 1788 to 1822 took it away.

Unlike other New York tribes, the Onondagas don’t want casinos or cash settlements. Instead, their suit asks the state to repair the environment by cleaning up dozens of Superfund sites throughout the land claim, including Onondaga Lake and the stream that flows by Powless’ home.

“We’ve been receiving casino offers for a long, long time,” Powless says. “The nation didn’t want that. We’ve been surviving without their money since before the U.S. government existed. Why should we need it now? That would be getting monetary gain at the expense of nature. The Onondaga Nation is trying to remind people that we should give something to our children, and our children’s children.”

In addition to the state, the tribe is suing Onondaga County, the city of Syracuse and five corporations, including Honeywell International, which merged with Allied in 1999 and assumed responsibility for the 165,000 pounds of mercury Allied dumped into Onondaga Lake.

Honeywell has proposed to pay $237 million to dredge 508,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment and cap roughly 350 acres of lake bottom with sand and gravel. The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) put forth its own $451 million plan to dredge 2.65 million yards and cap 579 acres.

But Onondaga representatives say such proposals are a day late and many dollars short. Both Powless and Joseph J. Heath, a Syracuse-based attorney representing the Onondagas, say the state has consistently ignored the tribe’s concerns and left them out of past discussions about the environment.

Heath charged that the plans offered by the state and Honeywell are insufficient, asserting that the lake’s mercury pollution runs 60 feet into the bottom sediment and that the plans won’t eliminate or contain all of the pollution.

“Once again, the DEC wants to let Honeywell get off for 20 cents on the dollar,” Heath says. “They want to let them dredge 20 percent of the lake, then cap it with sand, which is obviously absurd.”

Both Honeywell and the state defend their efforts. Honeywell spokesperson Victoria Streitfeld says her company believes “great progress has been made on the lake clean-up, and there should not be anything that disrupts the state’s plan. The clean-up of Onondaga Lake is overdue.”

DEC spokesperson Michael Fraser reiterates the state’s commitment to cleaning up Onondaga Lake, calling it “one of our highest environmental priorities.” He says the DEC’s plan will restore the lake “to its environmental, economic and historical potential” with a plan that “best serves the community around Onondaga Lake.”

Powless says the Onondaga Nation has gotten mostly positive feedback to its lawsuit, which may not be heard on the merits for several years. “We were preparing for the negatives,” he says. “But we’ve been getting a positive response and people asking how they can help. The people who live around us and work with us think we’re very intelligent, reasonable people who have been here since the Creator put us here.”

Heath adds that while skeptics might question the tribe’s stated goal of environmental improvement, the Onondagas have no ulterior or financial motive.

“This is not motivated by capitalist greed,” Heath says. “It’s driven by a need to protect the natural world for their children.“In late June, however, the Onondagas’ effort received a blow when a New York appeals court threw out a similar land claim by the Cayuga Nation. The court based its decision in that case on a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in March that told the Oneida tribe it had simply waited too long to make a legitimate claim to the land the Oneidas lost two centuries ago.

In the wake of those two rulings, the Onondagas have attempted to show that their lawsuit is fundamentally different from the Oneidas’ and Cayugas’ claims. While the latter two tribes sought to actually reclaim land and, in so doing, possibly displace current tenants, the Onondagas are stressing that, instead of land, they simply want the plaintiffs to step up their clean-up efforts—and to include the tribe in the process.

In addition, the tribe amended its lawsuit in August by asserting that political and financial restrictions over the decades have made it impossible to file a lawsuit until now. They also charge that the tribe for decades repeatedly complained to government officials about its claim to their land, but that all of those overtures were rebuffed.

Heath says it might take months for the Onondagas’ case to work its way through the courts. Meanwhile, Powless and his family are looking to the future. In fact, he says, change is already underway. Although trout are still not as plentiful as they once were in the stream by his house, Powless says there are signs of recovery, such as the return of beavers.

Even small things, he says, are proof that despite decades of abuse and neglect, the land of his ancestors has a future. “Nothing,” he says, “is beyond hope.”

CONTACT: Indian Law Resource Center, (406)449-2006,