Reflections on the Journey from Environmental Reciprocity
to Environmental Exploitation

Before: A Land in Balance- Cultural Ecology of the Ancestral Onondaga Homeland
By Pamela Bishop

Robin Kimmerer, Jeanne Shendandoah and Joyce King all spoke at the lecture "Before: A Land in Balance- Cultural Ecology of the Ancestral Onondaga Homeland," at the Syracuse Stage on October 16. Kimmerer addressed the natural history of the Haudenosaunee homelands, or what it was like before European contact, while Shenandoah and King participated in a conversation on the historical, spiritual and environmental significance of Onondaga Lake and Creek. The event was attended by an interesting mix of about 350 people from the community at large and area universities.

Jack Manno, a professor at SUNY ESF and series organizer, started the event with a few brief comments on the significance of the lecture as a conversation of building bridges between the traditional and scientific. Manno began by calling attention to the modern way of solving problems: "When faced with danger, build a wall and dig a trench," he said. This comment was specifically directed at Honeywell's proposed plan to "clean" Onondaga Lake through the methods of dredging sediments and capping existing pollution. His disbelief and distrust in this solution is premised on the knowledge that it is only a transitory fix to the horrifying reality of Onondaga Lake. "The only way forward, is through truth and reconciliation," Manno would continue "We need to understand, apologize and take responsibility to make it right."

Robin Kimmerer followed, this introduction, by presenting on the state of the Onondaga environment 500 years ago. Then there was a large population of Native Americans that exhibited extraordinary health and intact food chains of thriving wildlife populations. Kimmerer explained that the land was so plentiful because of gifts of the land (glaciers, soils, seasonality) and gifts of the people (indigenous land management, stewardship). Natives were agents of dispersal that would actively care for their environment creating environmental abundance and prosperity.

Robin Kimmerer also addressed the creation myth of the American frontier, that was based on the beliefs: that there was tremendous natural abundance, that the land was unmanaged by natives, and that it was for the colonists to manage. Through primary and secondary sources Kimmerer concluded the falsity of this myth. For, without native stewardship the land would be less than it had been. "We must use the insights of the past to create a future vision of healing," said Kimmerer "…it is not the land which is broken but our relationship to it, as immigrants we have a task of becoming native to this place; through respect, reciprocity and responsibility."

Next, Jeanne Shendandoah and Joyce King would conduct a conversation about the Onondaga's relationship to the land. This environmental philosophy asks them to give thanks, take only what is necessary from the land, and to remember the seven generations that follow the present. "When you don't give thanks you lose those things," said Joyce King "the passenger pigeons and buffalo are gone." Today the Onondaga homeland is manipulated and disrespected, native names are forgotten and the related significance of environment is lost. "Without the teachings of peacemaking, you cannot love this area and hold it close to your heart," said Jeanne Shenandoah.

The speakers at this event all agreed that we need to think carefully about where we are heading. With the advent of the privatization of water, environmental resources are turning into power over people. Together traditional and scientific knowledge can provide each other the strength needed to brighten the future. An analogy can be found in the two-row-wampum, which illustrates two paths going down the river of life together, separated by difference, peace, friendship and respect.

Pamela Bishop is an intern for Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation (NOON). Currently, she is pursuing a M.S. in Public Relations at the S.I.Newhouse School of Public Communications of Syracuse University. Previously she attended York University of Toronto, Canada where she attained a B.A. in Political Science.

For more information:
Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation, (315) 472-5478,