Cheesy Cloth Payment
Makes Onondagas Angry

by M.C. Burns
Syracuse Herald-Journal, Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, November 22, 1990,

ONONDAGA NATION—Every spring a United Parcel Service truck pulls up to the log Long House beside the lacrosse field at the Onondaga Nation and drops off bolts of cloth—modern remnants of a colonial treaty between the Indians and the white man's government.

The quality of the cloth has been declining for years. This year it was so bad the chiefs threatened to return it to the federal government. About 2,100 yards of cheesecloth—loose-weave gauzy cotton named for its use as a cheese wrap—was substituted for $4,500 worth of clothing, domestic animals and farm implements called for in Article VI of the Canandaigua Treaty signed in 1794. The cloth is one payment made annually for land on which Central New Yorkers live. It's one of the few treaty obligations still honored.

The state makes small payments, too. The Dept. of Social Services makes annual cash payments and shipments of salt, a holdover from the days when salt was mined from Indian land.

For the Indians, the treaty obligations are a practical part of life. For the Bureau of Indian Affairs, they're more symbolic.

"I remember when we were children we would go to the Long House and there were piles of beautiful calico cloth," said Helen Powless, an Onondaga grandmother and lifelong resident of the territory south of Nedrow. "Then we would all get new clothes."

The amount of cloth has shrunk since 1794 because the price set in the treaty has no cost-of-living clause. If this had been written in the treaty, the amount of cloth given today should be worth $72,000, according to Syracuse University economics professor Jim Price.

Several years ago the cloth arrived, and it wasn't calico. Undyed muslin was substituted by Interior Dept.'s Bureau of Indian Affairs. The BIA is replacing this year's cheesecloth with undyed muslin.

"It was awful," Seneca Chief Bernard Henry said of the cheesecloth. "What can you make out of cloth like that?"

Dean White, Syracuse regional liason for the BIA explained. "One of our procurement officers in Arlington, Va. shopped around and tried to get more cloth for the money," he said. "She thought it would be the same quality as previous years, but it wasn't."

A purchase order was signed in Sept. for 2,100 yards of muslin replacement to be divided according to population and delivered to Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga and Seneca nations, White said. "But knowing how slowly government works, I don't know when it will arrive," he said. BIA won't ask for the cheesecloth back, White said.

Leon Shenandoah, an Onondaga chief, chairman of the Iroquois confederacy, said the apparent lack of respect for the treaty is nothing new. He leads the six Indian nations joined under a common consitution with their capital at Onondaga. "We used to get much better cloth. You could make shirts out of it, anything you wanted. They are always trying to take from us what is ours," he said. "This is one of the only ways they hold to the treaties and then they do this."

But that doesn't mean the treaties aren't important to Shenandoah and others. "As long as we keep getting that cloth, they are honoring the treaty, even if they don't honor the other parts," he said, adding Indians hope someday the boundaries set by the treaty will still be honored. Shenandoah said he believes the government is afraid of the power of the treaties, signed to last forever.

"In the past, the elders were invited to Washington for the president's inauguration because the treaty says there will be peace and friendship between the chiefs and presidents," he said. "But the last time they only invited us to one of the parties—not the real one—so I didn't go. They don't want us to go to the president and say, 'What about the treaties?'"

Onondaga chief Irving Powless, Jr. said in 1954 a representative of then-Vice President Richard Nixon approached the tribes involved in the treaty and offered more than $1 million to end the annual cloth and other obligations of the treaty. "But we wouldn't take that money," he said. "Whatever I have and whatever I see I have to preserve for my great- grandchildren--not just mine, but all of them. We have to think of seven generations to come, and to them a treaty of peace and friendship is more important than money would be."

Evelyn Pickett of the BIA office in Washington said although there isn't a federal record of the 1954 meetings, they could have occurred. "That was a time when the federal government was very much interested in terminating treaty obligations," she said.

When Powless talks treaties, his first question is, "Who are these treaties between? They are between you and me," he said. "Individuals, not governments. Your people have to realize, the way Indians do, that maintaining the treaties is up to all of us."

Oren Lyons, faithkeeper of the Onondaga Nation, offered another perspective on the treaties. "Most people think treaties are about the white man giving Indians something when we really were the givers," he said. "White people came to us, and we gave our land."

Powless explained an Indian view of the land grabbing that went on in the 1700s and 1800s. "It would be like you and I going into an apartment house today and finding an empty apartment and setting up house there. But what happens when the landlord comes?" he said. "White people came on to our lands and thought yf we weren't there that day that it was not our land. They filled up all the rooms in the house of the Haudenosaunee, the people of the Long House."

Powless talked about the treaties this week in his log home living room on Onondaga Nation. At one point he jumped up and pulled down from a crossbeam a grammar school map of New York in 1763. It shows settlements of the Dutch and British along the eastern side of New York and the entire central and west portions as Indian lands.

"The whole idea of the treaties was not to keep the Indians in, but to keep the white people out. But the white people kept on coming into our territory," he said, gesturing across the map. "They would write to Albany for a charter and then circuit judges started showing up and the territory would be lost. But they were just inside an empty room. And just because a room is empty doesn't mean it isn't owned."

Powless keeps copies of treaties in his home computer—right at his fingertips to print out and refer to. One treaty signed with New York in 1795 calls for delivery of salt to the Onondaga Nation. Because, according to White, the lands ceded to the Indian nation in the treaty were used for salt production, the treaty stipulates that the salt be replaced by the government.

Sylvia Coppola, Indian Affairs assistant with NYS Dept. of Social Services in Buffalo, said this year's salt delivery cost between $1000 and $1,500. The price tag has jumped considerably since 1950—when the cost was $9, Coppola said. The delivery also occurs in the spring. The modern equivalent of 150 bushels of table salt is dropped off, packaged in bags, at the Long House. It is divided among nation residents. Coppola said the treaty calling for the salt was signed July 28, 1795. In 1817, another treaty was signed, increasing the amount of salt from 100 bushels to 150 bushels, Coppola said.

Small amounts are also paid to the Iroquois, based on treaties that took their lands. Based on the 1795 and 1817 treaties, the Onondaga Nation recieves annuities that this year amounted to $2,430. That's $1.65 per person. The Cayugas and the Western band of Cayugas split an annuity of $2,300, for treaties signed in 1789 and 1795, according to social service records. Mohawks at Akwesasne, or St. Regis, recieved a payment of $2,131.67. The Seneca Nation recieved $500 this year for a treaty signed in 1815.
see also:
The Great Law of Peace
The Tree of Peace
Basic Call to Consciousness
Six Nations Flag
Message in Moscow
Roots of Economic Democracy
Claim for Land and Justice

But even though payments on state treaties are being made, Indians contend the treaties are not valid ones. "The non-intercourse act was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1790 prohibiting states from making treaties," Powless said. "But NY kept right on doing it."

The concept of a treaty signed forever seems to be a foreign to the governments, Powless said. "They think just because something is old it's not in force anymore. Well, we have been here for 70,000 years. A 200 year old treaty is something new to us."

by David Yarrow

This article appeared at the top of page one on Thanksgiving Day—the day when America re-enacts a ceremony Plymouth pilgrims learned from Indians. The timing of this press conference shows the Onondagas have learned to manipulate modern media to highlight and emphasize their issues and existence.

Perhaps at Christmas they'll portray the U.S. as Scrooge.

However, the article is poorly written. Readers are left with jumbled impressions. The important points are hidden, or not said at all. The result appeals more to sentiment t

han to reason, and thus makes light of a deeply serious issue.

Nonetheless, by the article's end we read about land claims. For the issue isn't cheesecloth, but the land the cloth is to pay for. Giving America land was a great gift—one among many which allowed America's forefathers to survive.

But today America fails to appreciate what generous giving native people made for our democracy to be established. For one people to give another land isn't like selling a car, or house, or dishwasher—for land isn't created by human hand. Land is forever—it has no five year warranty.

But the treaties were "signed to last forever."

The real message of the Onondagas to Americans is only implied by their statements about cheesecloth. Their true, deeper message is a warning about honoring commitments—about how low we've sunk in that regard. In grand irony, George Bush has 400,000 troops ready to drive Iraq out of Kuwait, while NYS continues to occupy Onondaga lands it illegally seized—in violation of federal laws—200 years ago.

Americans treat native people as history—something in our past with no bearing on current events. This Thanksgiving Day message from Onondaga reminds us native people are still with us—and we still have lawful obligations to them. Present political policy tries to discount the continued presence of native people, but they survived 500 years of invasion, and are still present as distinct and separate race, culture, religion, and government.

And they still seek Justice.

Natives have their own view of Justice: American justice means just what it says—"just us." But as long as native people are allegiant to their sovereign governments, they'll be asking the U.S. about the treaties.

Thus, cheesecloth is a stunning symbol of how thin America's honor has become. Like the fabric, our commitment to the treaties is so paltry as to be transparent—which is to say, nonexistent. Such is the depth of our gratitude.

Our cheesy image has a deeper twist, since native people are allergic to cow's milk and milk products.

Similarly, although the BIA offers to replace its cheap threads with substantial fabric, the comment "how slowly the federal government works" is silly in the face to how fast and how much America sent and spent to get 400,000 troops to Saudi Arabia.

Leon Shenandoah points out the cloth is about the only way the U.S. still honors its treaties, but the reporter fails to describe the other obligations of those solemn agreements.

The 1794 Canandaigua Treaty also records a U.S. promise to protect the Six Nations from loss of their land. This was requested by the Six Nations because since 1788 NYS had tried to force the Six Nations to hand over their land.

But the federal government sat by and watch while the Empire State bullied and conned native people out of more and more land.

Leon gently points out how frivolous the U.S. has become toward native people. Even a simple invitation to a president's inauguration has become a discourteous slight to the original inhabitants who taught us democracy.

For the Six Nations Confederacy was an original American democracy, and for 50 years they counseled our Founding Fathers in the art of Union and Liberty. The Founding Fathers borrowed heavily from the Six Nations model—indeed, the first U.S. government was a confederation, too.

Now this elder democracy isn't invited when its younger brother installs its Executive. The Confederacy's role in USA's founding is conveniently forgotten—an unknown truth of history. "Confederacy" today invokes the rebel South in our un-Civil War.

Nixon's 1954 attempt to "terminate" the treaties reveals shallow U.S. regard for native people and their predicaments. The Onondagas will never consent to terminating what little their offspring will have to compensate them for loss of their homelands. $4,200 in cloth and 150 bushels of salt is a small pittance to pay even "in perpetuity," but it keeps the relationship alive, and provides those two essentials to their people.

In 1988 Leon Shenandoah was asked to speak at a rally for Jesse Jackson's Presidential campaign at Niagara Falls. I asked Leon, "When you see Jesse, what will you say to him?" Leon puffed his pipe a moment, then said slowly, "I'll wait till I can get his ear down close to my mouth like this, and then say, 'Jesse, if you are President, will you honor the treaties?'"

We laughed.

The reporter writes "Indians contend the treaties are not valid," implying this argument is of dubious and unproven legal merit.

But in truth, in 1975 the U.S. Supreme Court held NYS knowingly and willfully violated the 1790 and 1793 federal Trade & Intercourse Acts by failing to submit treaties with the Six Nations to the U.S. Congress for ratification. Thus, treaties made by NY after 1790 are invalid under U.S. law. So said the Supreme Court.

Since NYS arrogantly refused to submit treaties for ratification, NYS "failed to extinguish title," for only a soveriegn can extinguish title of another sovereign.

Now NY's legal error has come back to haunt the Empire State.

NY's first treaty with Onondaga Nation was the Salt Treaty, which granted NY permission to begin salt industry at Onondaga Lake. That industry provided most of America's salt until the Civil War, and most of NY's revenue. Now Onondaga Lake is North America's most polluted inland water body. And since NY failed to extinguish title, in 1990 the Salt Treaty expired.

Irving Powless's statement treaties "are between you and me" sounds odd in this age of huge centralized governments. But the U.S. Constitution is "of the people, by the people and for the people." If the government fails to honor its treaties, then it falls on the people to assure that justice is done.

Thus, this Thanksgiving Day message from the original people is a call to the people to do what is right.

But few American's today will accept personal responsibility for their relationship to native people; most are fully preoccupied with "the pursuit of happiness."

Native people know, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz: "There's no place like home." 518-330-2587