Published on January 25th, 2018 | by Ken Cosentino0
Seneca Evidence Doesn’t Add Up
The purpose of this article is to point out some interesting facts and inconsistencies in a federal court case that is perhaps more relevant today than it was during the time of the trial. As a lifelong resident of the city of Niagara Falls, NY, I find a disturbing lack of journalistic integrity surrounding the situation of current affairs in my hometown.
When I first began reporting on this situation, I was merely researching the history of the islands of the Niagara river. Particularly Goat Island and Three Sisters Islands, which are included in the Niagara Falls State Park boundaries. Certain construction led by Empire State Development in recent years left thousands of Niagarians upset. Official reports from ESD and Niagara Greenway included wording that states “significant public input from the city of Niagara Falls” was considered in the undertaking of this construction. I have spent four years searching for any evidence of the opportunity for the citizens of Niagara Falls to voice our concerns on this construction, and to this date I have yet to find any such proof. This, however, is a topic for a future article in this series.
Last year, while researching the history of the islands, I came across the 1993 – 2002 Grand Island land claim case, in which the Seneca Nation of Indians tried to claim ownership of the islands of the Niagara River. I have detailed my findings in this earlier article.
In order to leave the facts as facts, free of any journalistic spin, here is a list in chronological order:
1990: The Seneca Nation Settlement Act is passed, returning aboriginal lands to the ownership of the Seneca Nation.
1993: The Seneca Nation files suit to reclaim Grand Island, NY.
June 2002: The Grand Island land claim case ends. Judge Arcara rules in favor of New York State.
August 2002: The Seneca Nation of Indians enters into a gaming Compact with New York State.
2013: An amended version of the Compact was agreed upon between the Seneca Nation and New York State, after NYS violated the exclusivity agreement with three racetrack casinos.
2013: New York State votes to legalize state gaming.
Now that I have stated the facts, it’s time to introduce the X-factor. Former NYS Congressman John LaFalce was vehemently against the 2002 gaming agreement between NYS and SNI (Seneca Nation of Indians). LaFalce argued that the 1990 Seneca Settlement Act, which he co-sponsored, was not meant as a way for SNI to secure gaming. LaFalce saw the Grand Island land claim case as an attempt at grabbing land to be used for gaming. Even though more than half of the Seneca population opposed gaming in the 1990’s, says LaFalce, “To be sure, a certain number, in my judgment, did see an opportunity for gambling, because while the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act does prohibit casino gambling off reservation, it does permit certain narrow exceptions, i.e., if land is placed into trust as part of the settlement of a land claim. So, this group did bring a lawsuit in 1993 claiming title to all the land on Grand Island and a significant portion of the land in the City of Niagara Falls, hoping for a settlement permitting gambling. This was their “first bite” at the apple of their eye—casino gambling.”
Was LaFalce wrong? Absolutely not. The proximity of the NYS/SNI gaming compact to the ruling of the Grand Island land claim case is astounding. Two months after the nine year case came to conclusion, New York State agreed to the gaming compact with SNI. This could not have happened overnight, meaning that this process must have begun while the case was still pending.
So why is this such a big deal?
For one, the group representing SNI withheld key evidence from the Grand Island land claim case. I have obtained a copy of the of the courtroom proceedings from this trial and I have combed the information thoroughly to understand what happened. First hand evidence in a case with roots over a century old is obviously crucial to the outcome of the trial. In this case, the most important first hand evidence are the journals of Sir William Johnson, the British General who created the 1764 Treaties of Niagara, extinguishing the Seneca title to the islands. Johnson’s journals were cited several times throughout the case. I took it upon myself to read through Johnson’s notes, written in his own hand of his own account of what happened, and what I found was shocking. Again, please refer to my complete description of this information. My sources are cited, and facts are facts: The three Chiefs who signed the “Treaty” of August 1764 were hostages. This is not interpretation, this is fact. Hostages cannot sign a treaty. If more solid governmental manuevers need to be cited, let it be that the Stimson Doctrine can be cited in that no agreement signed under duress should be recognized by the United States government.
Below is the ruling from Judge Arcara in the Grand Island land claim case:
VI. SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION
The Seneca Nation’s aboriginal title to the Niagara Islands, if in fact the Senecas ever held such title, was extinguished prior to New York’s purported purchase of the Islands in 1815. In 1764, pursuant to treaty, Great Britain extinguished any claim of Seneca title to the Islands, thereby securing fee simple absolute title to the Islands for itself. Upon the American Revolution. Britain’s fee simple absolute title passed to the State of New York. Furthermore, pursuant to the 1784 Treaty of Fort Stanwix, the United States again extinguished any claim of title the Senecas may have had to the Niagara Islands. Under the Articles of Confederation and the law of Indian land tenure, once the Senecas’ title was extinguished, New York, as the holder of the right of preemption, obtained fee simple absolute title to the Islands (assuming of course that New York did not already possess such title as a result of the 1764 treaties).
The 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua did not divest New York of its title to the Islands because such purpose was not shown in the Treaty with such certainty as to put it beyond reasonable question. Moreover, even if the Treaty could be interpreted to have included the Islands as land to which the United States was recognizing Seneca title, New York was not divested of its title to the Islands because just compensation was never paid by the United States to New York as required under the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution.
Thus, the Court finds that the purported conveyance of the Niagara Islands to New York in 1815 did not constitute a violation of the Nonintercourse Act because at the time of the conveyance, the Islands were not tribal land protected by the Act. Accordingly, the Court: (1) denies plaintiffs’ motions for summary judgment; and (2) grants defendants’ motion for summary judgment. The Clerk of Court is hereby ordered to enter judgment in favor of the defendants and to take all steps necessary to close the case.
IT IS SO ORDERED
The evidence that I found in Sir William Johnson’s notes took me two weeks of vigorous reading and cross referencing with historical accounts. The Grand Island land claim case lasted nine years. In those nine years, not once did the lawyers representing SNI make mention of the fact that the Chiefs signing the Treaty of 1764 were hostages. At first, perhaps in my own arrogance, I believed that I found evidence which was overlooked by the SNI legal team. Then I began looking further into the courtroom proceedings, and the Senecas’ own portrayal of the case. The first thing that is off to me is that SNI only tried to claim Grand Island. As a result of the August 1764 Treaty, the islands of the Niagara River are a package bundle. One island cannot be obtained without all of the islands being obtained. So why did SNI only attempt to claim Grand Island? The fact that the entire case hinged on the August Treaty of 1764 means that the SNI legal team should have collected and reviewed all evidence pertaining to this particular treaty. The best evidence for this treaty were Sir William Johnson’s notes, which were cited in court, but the fact that the Chiefs were hostages was never mentioned. The fact that there are two treaties of Niagara of 1764, both identical except for the fact that the August of 1764 treaty includes the addition of the islands, was only briefly touched upon in the trial when the defense quoted the treaty directly.
In a nine year long case, how could key evidence not be brought up? Unless, as former Congressman John LaFalce puts it, the Grand Island land claim case was a manuever that was (successfully) used to obtain the gaming compact between NYS and SNI. As I see it, SNI withheld key evidence, pulling their knockout punch in order to obtain the gaming compact.
Was this political dishonesty performed by the Senecas? Not really. SNI (Seneca Nation of Indians) is a corporate subsidiary of New York State. When LaFalce says ““To be sure, a certain number, in my judgment, did see an opportunity for gambling,” and “this group did bring a lawsuit in 1993″ he is right on the money. The Seneca Party, a political party that is notorious for buying election votes with money and drugs, seems to be at the heart of this scheme. They were in power in 2002 during the Grand Island case ruling and during the signing of the gaming compact, and they are still currently in power.
They are not alone, however. In order for this whole thing to work, there must have been players on the New York State side of things. That is information for a future article. The persons involved in this scheme on the Seneca end of things were clearly individuals looking for personal gain, and nothing more. It is hard to fathom for many that any Native of Turtle Island would exchange an opportunity to claim land for financial gain, however history has revealed many “Uncle Tomahawks” who had no problem selling out their own tribes for profit.
So what about the rest of the ruling? Judge Arcara based his ruling on the August 1764 Treaty, which dictates the boundaries for the 1784 Treaty of Fort Stanwix. With the August 1764 Treaty of Niagara being debunked, the 1784 Treaty of Fort Stanwix holds no jurisdiction over the islands of the Niagara River. The 1815 sale of the islands is a violation of the Nonintercourse Act because the islands did in fact belong to Senecas at the time, in pursuant to the August 1764 Treaty being signed by hostages and thus it is null and void. In conclusion, this means that the islands do belong to the Senecas. Not to SNI, the corporate subsidiary of New York State, and not to the Seneca Party, a group of businessmen who enjoy financial gain at the cost of their own people; but to the Onondawaga, the true people of the Seneca tribe.
Only time will tell as to whether these injustices are made right, and whether those who perpetrated these heinous acts will be held accountable. As a society, we must look back on our nation’s treaties with Indigenous nations. When it is proven that a treaty has been violated, or worse; that the original treaty itself is not even a real treaty – then we must, as a people, do the right thing. We must uphold what is true and just and expose the corruption that keeps this factual information under wraps. I don’t suppose the Seneca Party or their friends in New York State ever believed anyone would take it upon themselves to revisit the Grand Island land claim case, and as such I am certain they hoped this key evidence would be buried with Sir William Johnson’s own impropriety. Now that the truth has seen the light, it is only a matter of time before must needed justice should be served, and we must do what is right and abide by the laws of the land.