New York could not have become the Empire State without a systematic program of Indigenous dispossession that at times violated the laws of the United States. Dispossession was not inevitable. Nothing ever is. It was neither natural nor manifest. It was, at times, carried out in ways that should offend the sensibilities of anyone who believes that the American Nation ought to follow its own rules and keep its word. Dispossession was not the Indians’ fault. At times, and places, it was a clear violation of the law. Dispossession was a crime.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in the Sherrill case, said that these crimes took places too long ago to be remedied, that in the case in front of her, Oneidas made up less than 1% of the population in Oneida and Madison County. Notorious, indeed. But she chose to ignore entirely the very real and well-documented historical process through which the Oneida homeland went from 100% Oneida to less than 1%. It’s history, my friends. It is not natural. It was neither foreordained or an example of God’s manifest design. It was a disaster, and Haudenosaunee people retain rights in New York State to this date that the courts have yet to recognize. Those rights continue to endure. We might do a territorial acknowledgment at the beginning of campus functions at the college where I teach, but in the context of a long history of dispossession and continued inaction, it seems a hollow and empty gesture.