THE CAYUGA FIRST PEOPLES NATION
People of the Great (Montezuma)Swamp
The Cayuga Nation has a traditional system of government and participates in the Haudenosaunee Grand Council of Chiefs. It has no reservation. Its citizens live on or near the Seneca Nation of Indians’ Cattaraugus reservation south of Buffalo. The Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma, descendants of Cayugas who were relocated there by the U.S. government in 1831.
The Cayugas claim about 64,000 acres around the northern end of Cayuga Lake in Cayuga and Seneca counties. This acreage was their reservation in 1789. They wish to reestablish a Cayuga reservation. Land acquisitions by New York State in 1795 and 1807 violated the federal Nonintercourse Act of 1790.
The Cayugas once inhabited nearly two million acres stretching from Lake Ontario to the Pennsylvania border in the area now known as the Finger Lakes Region. During the Revolutionary War, Cayuga warriors reluctantly sided with the British. American troops laid waste all the main Cayuga settlements during General John Sullivan’s infamous raid of 1779.
Peace treaties imposed by the Continental Congress at Fort Stanwix in 1784 and at Fort Harmar in 1789 promised that the Cayugas would be “secured in the peaceful possession of the lands they inhabit.” But by then, two-thirds of the Cayuga population had moved to Canada. Those left behind divided into two groups, one at Buffalo Creek and one at Cayuga Lake. Both groups faced economic hardship from the devastation of the war and neither was strong enough to turn back the tide of non-Indian settlers encroaching on their lands. Under this duress, each group explored ways to trade land for cash. The Cayuga Lake group was persuaded in 1789 to sell to New York all Cayuga land except for 64,000 acres, which became their reservation. For this sale they receive d $2,125 plus a $500 annuity. The next year, the Buffalo Creek group reluctantly consented to that sale and received an additional $1,000. But encroachment continued. In 1795, the state purchased the reservation itself, except for three small tracts. By the mid-1800s, even these tracts had been sold and the dwindling Cayuga population either found refuge with the Senecas or agreed to relocation in Oklahoma.
So in 1980, the Cayuga Nation brought a lawsuit in U.S. District Court seeking the return of the 64,000 acres lost in 1795 and 1807, the eviction of the current occupants, and $350 million in trespass damages. The Cayugas alleged that these transactions were illegal because they had not been approved by the federal government, as required by the Nonintercourse Act of 1790. Defendants named in the suit included the state, the two counties, and 7,000 private property holders in the claim area. Renewed efforts to reach an out-of-court settlement failed. In 1992, the U.S. Department of Justice filed its own lawsuit on the Cayugas’ behalf. In 1994, U.S. District Judge Neal McCurn upheld the Cayugas’ claim but delayed awarding damages in order to encourage settlement talks. Subsequently, the Cayugas, New York State, the federal government, and the two counties attempted to negotiate an out-of-court settlement with the help of a court-appointed settlement master. A jury trial to determine the Cayugas’ compensation was scheduled and delayed several times to allow more opportunity for these negotiations. But finally, with the talks apparently stalled, the trial was held. In February 2000,the jury recommended that the Cayugas be awarded $36.9 million for their lost land—far less than most observers had expected.
In April 1999, the court-appointed settlement master, Eric E. VanLoon, announced that all parties involved in the claim had agreed that any settlement would not involve forcing landholders off their properties. In June 1999, U.S. District Judge Neal McCurn said he would not consider eviction of current landholders as a possible remedy in the land claim dispute. He has also ruled that a trial will consider only damages against the state, not against the counties or the property holders.
As of 2017, New York State Second Peoples continue to refuse to provide reparation to the Cayuga Nation.