The Onondaga Indian Nation's claim to 4,000 square miles of land running down the middle of the state and comprising some of the largest cities in upstate New York was to be argued in court Thursday.
The central New York tribe filed claim in 2005 to a swath of land up to 40 miles wide running north to south from the St. Lawrence River to the Pennsylvania state line. They argue that New York state illegally took the land from them centuries ago.
New York, among other things, claims the Iroquois tribe waited to long to sue. The state will ask U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Kahn to dismiss the claim, which includes the cities of Binghamton, Oswego, Syracuse and Watertown.
The Onondagas are not seeking monetary damages and insist they do not want to evict the roughly 875,000 residents of the disputed area. They say they want to spur a cleanup of Onondaga Lake, a waterway sacred to the tribe, and other hazardous waste sites.
"There is no attempt to take people off their land and evict them," tribal attorney Joseph Heath said on the eve of arguments. "Our case is about healing."
Heath said that if tribal leaders get a judgment in their favor, they would hope to sit down with state officials to consider a range of options, such as a lease payment plan or a plan to help the Onondagas buy additional land from willing sellers.
While the Onondagas today maintain an 11-mile-square reservation south of Syracuse, they had been spread over much of what is now central New York centuries ago at the height of the Iroquois Confederacy.