April 8, 2021

GUEST ROOM | Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Cornell Alum, Supreme Court Justice and Colonizer

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Former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ‘54 is one of Cornell’s most notable alumni. Her work as a Supreme Court Justice and gender equality advocate make her one of the greatest examples of Cornellian excellence. But underneath this cleaned up image of inspiration is her oft-ignored legacy that is defined by violence against Indigenous people. Ginsburg is another cog in the capitalist system of the United States that was built on genocide and enslavement, and an enemy of the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island.   

Ginsburg’s most notorious campaign against Indigenous people in the United States came about in the case Sherrill v. Oneida (2005). The Oneida Nation of New York purchased land on the free market that was within their historic reservation lands, established by the Treaty of Fort Schuyler in 1788. They lost ownership of the lands because the state of New York had continued to buy and encroach upon the boundaries established between the US and the Oneida over time. Since the land was within their historic reservation territory, the Oneida held that they would not pay taxes on the land after buying it back to local or state governments because their status as a sovereign nation rendered the land tax exempt.  

The town of Sherrill, N.Y. sought to impose taxes upon the Nation, and filed in court. The  U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York and the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Oneida. However, this was reversed when the case was brought before the Supreme Court. Ginsburg wrote the opinion of the court that reversed the previous lower court rulings.

Justice Ginsburg held that  “Given the longstanding non-Indian character of the area… we hold that the tribe cannot unilaterally revive its ancient sovereignty, in whole or in part, over the parcels at issue.” Ginsburg acknowledged that the land had been seized illegally by New York State, but maintained that because of the passage of time, there was nothing the court could do. 

To justify this action, Ginsburg cited the Doctrine of Discovery in the case opinion’s first footnote: “Under the “Doctrine of Discovery,… fee title to the lands occupied by Indians when the colonists arrived became vested in the sovereign—first the discovering European nation and later the original States and the United States,”. The Doctrine of Discovery holds that when settlers come to a tract of land inhabited by Indigenous people, the colonists have the automatic right to that land because they “discovered” it.  

The Doctrine of Discovery was used by Christopher Columbus and other colonizers to justify the brutalization and attempted genocide of Indigenous peoples across the Americas. It exists to posit Indigenous people as sub-human, unable to hold proper title to land. 

It has been used to undermine the status of sovereign Indigenous Nations for centuries within the legal framework of the United States. For Ginsburg to cite the Doctrine of Discovery shows the contempt and lack of understanding she holds for the rights of Indigenous peoples.  

A few months later in the court case Cayuga Indian Nation of New York v. Pataki (2005) the ruling in Sherrill, N.Y. was used again to strike down a land claims case filed by the Cayuga Nation. Cornell University occupies unceded Cayuga Nation territory. 

Ginsburg contributed to maintaining the cycles of colonial violence and Indigenous dispossession that Cornell University was founded on, evidenced by its status as a land grant institution. I’m sure the University would applaud her for her efforts. Of course, they already have, with Ruth Bader Ginsburg hall set to open on North Campus this fall, right down the street from Ganędagǫ: Hall (pronounced Gah-NEN-dah-go) – meaning “hill” in the Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫ’ language, named in honor of the Cayuga Nation. Nothing says you’re a thing of the past like a monument to honor your “historic” presence on the land that Cornell occupies. 

Colin Benedict is a Senior in the college of Industrial and Labor Relations and is a former co-chair of Native American and Indigenous Students at Cornell (NAISAC).  Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Rooms runs periodically throughout the semester.