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Cayuga Nation recognizes Treaty of Canandaigua anniversary

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The Cayuga Nation and its people have resided in what is now upstate central New York from time immemorial. November 11th has a special meaning for the Nation, as it is the anniversary of the Treaty of Canandaigua, which established the Cayuga Nation’s current Reservation. The Nation offers this essay to call to mind the history of the Treaty and the establishment of the Reservation.

As the autumn leaves fell on the banks of Canandaigua Lake over two centuries ago, fifty sachems and war chiefs of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy stood on their ancestral lands to negotiate as sovereign equals with the representatives of a nation in the earliest days of its infancy, born of people who had come from an ocean away. Although the parties were adorned in different dress, had different customs and traditions, and spoke a different native language, they all shared the cardinal virtue that a promise made is a promise kept. The promise that day took the form of the Treaty of Canandaigua. And while the leaders of that time could never imagine the modern world as it has evolved today, they all saw it to be a world in which that promise was kept.

On its 228th anniversary this November 11, 2022, the Treaty of Canandaigua remains the supreme law of the land in the United States, and the Cayuga Nation’s Reservation and sovereignty to govern its people is unassailable. The United States Congress has never abrogated the Treaty of Canandaigua, divested the Cayuga Nation of its Reservation, or otherwise diminished its boundaries. And under the United States system of government, only Congress has the authority to do so. 

For hundreds of years before the first European stepped foot on the shores of what would come to be known as America, the Nation lived under the Great Law of Peace with its fellow members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy: the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, and Seneca nations. Known as the Iroquois Confederacy to the French in the seventeenth century, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy came to be known to the English as the “Five Nations”—and then as the “Six Nations” when the Tuscarora nation joined the Haudenosaunee in the early eighteenth century.

As the end of the century drew near, the newly formed United States had emerged from the American Revolutionary War, and its nascent government set out to secure peace with the Six Nations through the treaty making process. The United States government also sought to gain  native support and obtain concessions with respect to native lands. While the first steps toward a meaningful compact with the Haudenosaunee Confederacy were accomplished by the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1784 and the Treaty of Fort Harmar in 1789, much remained unresolved and tensions between the parties increased.

The Cayuga Nation, like other members of the Haudenosaunee, were no strangers to the treaty making process. Indeed, treaties had been an important part of the native life for centuries, and were considered “sacred texts” creating bonds of permanent friendship and enduring obligations. The Haudenosaunee would need greater and more significant assurances guaranteeing perpetual sovereignty over their lands and their people in order to ensure peace with the United States. With this in mind, President George Washington sent Colonel Timothy Pickering to negotiate directly with the Cayuga and the other members of the Six Nations, with the parties opening the negotiation ceremonies in adherence to Haudenosaunee customs and with the steadfast purpose of establishing a “firm and permanent friendship.”

On November 11, 1794, the Six Nations and the United States entered into the Treaty of Canandaigua. Under the treaty, the United States made an express promise: It would forever acknowledge the lands reserved to the Cayuga Nation and the other members of the Six Nations, it would never claim those lands or disturb them or the Haudenosaunee people who reside on them, and it would recognize the rights of the Six Nations to govern their own people and set the laws with respect to their own nations. The treaty specifically recognized the Cayuga Nation’s approximately 64,000 acres of land in upstate central New York, and firmly established that land as the Nation’s sovereign Reservation. The United States Constitution made treaties the “supreme law of the land,” rendering the Treaty of Canandaigua second to none and thereby enshrining the United States’ promise to the Cayuga Nation and the rest of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. 

The entire sweep of New York state and federal courts to address the matter have unequivocally stated that the Treaty of Canandaigua, its promises to the Cayuga Nation, and the Cayuga Nation Reservation exist with equal force today as they did over two hundred years ago. Looking back to judicial decisions over the past twenty years provides just the latest examples:

In 2005, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit recognized “on November 11, 1794, the Six Iroquois Nations entered the Treaty of Canandaigua with the United States. This treaty acknowledged the Original Reservation the Cayugas retained in the 1789 treaty with New York [which had greatly reduced the Cayugas’ lands from over 3 million acres to the current approximately 64,000 acres], and promised the Cayugas that the remaining acreage would remain theirs until they ‘chose to sell the same to the people of the United States who have the right to purchase.’”  To be clear, pursuant to the treaty only the United States, and not New York or private parties, had right to buy the lands.

In 2010, New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, reaffirmed “[i]n the 1794, Treaty of Canandaigua, the United States recognized that the Cayuga Nation possessed an  approximately 64,000-acre reservation in Central New York (prior to the ratification of the Federal Constitution, the New York government had similarly recognized this reservation),” and recognized “[o]nce a block of land is set aside for an Indian Reservation and no matter what happens to the title of individual plots within the area, the entire block retains its reservation status until Congress explicitly indicates otherwise.”

In 2017, the United States District Court for the Western District of New York stressed “[o]n November 11, 1794, the Six Iroquois Nations entered the Treaty of Canandaigua with the United States. This treaty acknowledged the Original Reservation the Cayugas retained in the 1789 treaty with New York, and promised the Cayugas that the land would remain theirs until they ‘chose to sell the same to the people of the United States who have the right to purchase.’”

In 2021, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit made clear “the federal government today recognizes the [Cayuga] Nation as the same entity with which it concluded the Treaty of Canandaigua” and no “legislation (nor any legislation passed since) disestablished the Cayuga Reservation or any of the other reservations established through the Treaty of Canandaigua.” The court left no doubt: “the Cayuga Reservation’s existence ha[s] not been forgotten to history[.]”

The Treaty of Canandaigua is not just a piece of parchment, or a forgotten relic of the past. As a matter of law, it is a real and lasting accord between sovereigns that is just as binding in digital ink today as it was when it was written with a quill and memorialized in the beads of a wampum belt 228 years ago. Then and now, the Treaty of Canandaigua ensures the Cayuga Nation sovereign control over the property located within the bounds of its Reservation, and the right to govern its own people according to its own laws.

The Cayuga Nation recognizes the Treaty of Canandaigua on this 228th anniversary.