The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights recently informed the Onondaga Nation of its decision affirming the viability of the Nation’s international legal claims against the United States related to land unlawfully taken from the Nation in the 18th and 19th centuries. In a Report on Admissibility in the case, the Commission noted that “indigenous peoples who have lost total or partial possession of their territories preserve their property rights over such territories, and a preferential right to recover them even when they are in the hands of third parties” and that States unable to return traditional Indigenous lands “must surrender alternative lands of equal extension and quality.” The Commission rejected the United States’ arguments that the Nation’s claims were unreviewable.
The ruling represents the Commission’s first-ever acknowledgement of the barriers preventing Haudenosaunee Nations from pursuing land rights claims in domestic courts, and just the second case in which the Commission has ruled against the United States for failures to properly respect the land rights of Indigenous Peoples. Firm attorneys Alex Page and Curtis Berkey represented the Nation before the Commission, together with the Nation’s general counsel, and worked with legal historian Lindsay Robertson to chronicle the Nation’s relentless efforts to seek justice in state and federal fora. The Commission accepted the Nation’s legal arguments that the failure of the courts of the United States to provide redress for the unlawful taking of Nation lands could violate rights to judicial protection and equality under law protected by the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man. The Commission also acknowledged the relevance of other international legal instruments, including the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to the matter.