At a Glance
State of New York v. Danny White is a lawsuit challenging New York State’s attempts to evict Mohawk Native Americans from land that had been recognized as theirs in the Treaty of 1784. It also challenged the jurisdiction of U.S. courts over Native American land claims on the basis that Mohawks are a separate entity from America.
In May 1974, a group of Mohawk Native Americans founded a settlement in upstate New York called Ganienkeh, (or Land of the Flint) on land that belonged to them under the Treaty of 1784, established between the United States and the Six Nations Confederacy, to which the Mohawks belong. However, the State of New York had recently purchased the land to make a State park.
In October 1974, the State filed an action in federal district court to resolve the question of the conflicting ownership claims to the land. In the papers, the State recognized that the Treaty of 1784 gave land to the Six Nations, but claimed the Mohawks relinquished the land in a subsequent 1797 treaty. The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), vigorously contested on behalf of the Mohawks the validity of that treaty, as well as the right of one nation to settle a land dispute with another nation in the domestic courts of one of the disputing parties.
On October 28, 1974, two whites who were injured by gunfire returned from the Mohawk camp after the campsite was fired upon. State police demanded to question witnesses and alleged participants in the shootings. The residents of Ganienkeh took the position that the proper way to resolve the matter was under the Canadagua Treaty of 1794, which established the procedure to be followed when a Native American is injured by a non-Native American, or vice versa.
The Grand Council of the Six Nations also sent a formal complaint to the President of the United States regarding the violence directed at the residents of Ganienkeh by U.S. citizens, asking the government to take steps to stop it. It asked the government to terminate the federal lawsuit regarding the land dispute, based on the fact that the suit is actually against the Six Nations, which, as a sovereign nation is immune from suit and does not consent to be sued; and finally, that a land dispute between nations must be settled in an international forum or through diplomatic negotiations.
In March 1975, the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York dismissed the State’s case, although not on the grounds the Center for Constitutional Rights (“CCR”) had argued. Rather, the Court ruled that the case should be brought in State court. The State appealed the decision, and argument was heard in November. The issues raised, aside from the jurisdictional questions, include whether Mohawks may reclaim and resettle occupied land, theirs by aboriginal and treaty rights; whether the validity of Native American treaties being a political question may be decided by the judiciary; and the considerations raised in the complaint to the President.
In early January of 1976, the Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling of the district court that as currently drawn, the State’s complaint did not pose a federal question distinguishing between actions to evict Native Americans from land and actions to remove a cloud from the title where Native Americans claim title to land presently held by non-Native Americans. The Court of Appeals agreed to permit the State to amend its complaint in order to come within federal jurisdiction.
Meanwhile, additional actions were taken by local white citizens and the local District Attorney in the State courts. In one case, residents of the Big Moose area, who had unsuccessfully sought to intervene in the federal action, sued New York State officials to force them to evict the Native Americans. The case was dismissed by the Court as being inappropriate.
In a second action, brought by the Herkimer County District Attorney, residents of Ganienkeh were sued for trespassing. The Grand Council of the Six Nations directed the Native Americans not to take part in any litigation which seeks to determine the ownership of land, and therefore the validity of Native American treaties. However, a group of local white citizens, who support the Native Americans, Rights for American Indians Now (RAIN) have appeared as amicus curiae to present arguments to the Court as to why the case should be dismissed. That case, Blumberg v. Kakwirakeron, was still pending when this suit was finished.
Meanwhile, the citizens of Ganienkeh have been farming (assisted by a grant for farm machinery) and continuing to develop their community. Babies have been born, and the community is growing in strength and purpose.