Our Debt to Nature

by Sidney Hill

Our Haudenosaunee Confederacy, a league of five Indian Nations, was born on the shores of Onondaga Lake nearly 1,000 years ago, but our people have lived beside the lake since time immemorial.

The Onondaga Nation, the spiritual center for the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, is connected to this body of water by ties that transcend time and space. Our ancestors walked the paths around Onondaga Lake. They hunted, fished and paddled across its once-blue waters. Most certainly, they stopped on its shores to give thanksgivings for all the Creator had given them.

One of our fundamental laws is to treat all elements of our natural world with respect. As a people, we are connected to the land, the lake and all, the creatures that fly above it, walk along its shores and swim beneath the waves. This is the unity of the natural world.

It is with great sorrow that we have witnessed the damage to Onondaga Lake and the life forms that depend on it. The facts are shameful. Onondaga Lake now contains more poisons and toxins than any body of water its size on this continent. In addition to the contamination in the lake itself, there are vast quantities of additional toxic materials along its shores, many in unsecured landfills and waste pits that continuously seep into the lake every day of the year, adding new poisons to old.

After two decadesof debate, blame, studies, lawsuits, more studies and court mandates, state officials finally presented the long-awaited cleanup plan last week to the public. Just a week before it was released, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation sent officials armed with a brief power-point demonstration to visit the Onondaga Nation Longhouse.

As the lead agency designing the clean-up plan and overseeing its implementation, the DEC is mandated to consult with any Native nations that may have a concern when any project affecting them is planned. Clearly, activities on the lake are a matter of concern to us.

The DEC never actually consulted the Onondaga Nation about this plan, or provided an opportunity for government-to-government dialogue. The officials came, showed their slide show and left. Their visit to the Longhouse was perfunctory, almost an afterthought. In all likelihood, the plan was already in print.

After hearing their words, we expressed our strong disagreement with a plan that would clean up only a portion of Onondaga Lake, and cover up the tons of mercury with a sand cap. The Onondaga Council of Chiefs objected to this incomplete proposal, and urged the removal of all mercury and all other contaminating metals, chemicals and toxins that poison fish and render the lake unsuitable for use by humans and animals.

Our mandates, our thanksgivings do not designate care for only a percentage of the gifts we have been given; we acknowledge them all as equal components of our life here on Earth. And we feel duty bound to care for them. In the same way as deadly cancers are removed from the human body to give a person a chance to live, so it must be with Onondaga Lake.

Waters are life.Springs, rivers, streams, puddles, rain, snow, the dew on the grass - all have a purpose. So, too, does Onondaga Lake. The lake must be given a chance to survive. Those who despoiled it must be held accountable for the damage they have done.

The Nation looks to New York state, the government that sat back and allowed the pollution to go on unchecked, to finally hold the wrongdoers fully responsible and require a complete cleanup. The state had the power to stop the poisoning and didn't exercise it. It now has the power to order a full cleanup. The failure to do so transfers responsibility to the state itself.

Sidney Hill is chief of the Onondaga Nation Council of Chiefs.

2004 The Post-Standard. Used with permission.