Onondaga Land Rights & Our Common Future Part II

A Collaborative Educational Series
bringing together the Central New York community, Syracuse University, SUNY ESF, Le Moyne College, Empire State College and others

Help Publicize the series: 8.5 x 11 color flier, 8.5 x 14 bw flier (pdf files)

This Land is Your Land (actually this is my land now)
A brief report on the OLRA event "From the Doctrine of Discovery to International Recognition of Rights

By Kirsti Maurer

Over 250 Central New Yorkers packed Le Moyne College's Grewen Auditorium to learn about the "Doctrine of Christian Discovery" and efforts to achieve human and national rights for indigenous peoples on Monday March 1. The second event in the year-long "Onondaga Land Rights & Our Common Future II" educational series, the program featured guest speakers Phil Arnold, an Associate Professor of Indigenous religions at Syracuse University; Tonya Gonella-Frichner (Onondaga Snipe Clan) President and founder of the American Indian Law Alliance in New York City; and John Dieffenbacher-Krall; the Executive Director for the intergovernmental Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission.

A brief history of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery and its devastating effects was shared with the audience. For those who were not familiar with the Doctrine, the speakers described it as a series of documents that gave permission to European explorers to enslave all indigenous or non-Christian peoples as well as take over their land. This doctrine has been the basis for several important US Supreme Court decisions including Johnson v. McIntosh (US Supreme Court 1823) and more recently the Oneida Nation v. Sherrill, NY in 2005 which was written by Justice Ginsburg, known to be a more liberal judge.

To provide a concrete example of the long-term effects of the Doctrine of Discovery, Dr. Arnold showed slides of several pieces from the art show "Mush Hole Remembered: R. Gary Miller." This was a memory-based exhibit of art by a survivor of an Indian residential school. The photos shown depicted memories of abuse and sexual mistreatment as well the loss of traditional Native language in the Mohawk institute. These schools were common throughout the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand and were meant to "civilize, missionize, transform, and erase Native Americans, First Nations peoples and Aborigines." Dr. Arnold is currently working to bring the exhibit to the Central New York area.

Tonya Gonella-Frichner described her work with the United Nations as helping to facilitate the process of drafting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Ms. Frichner focused on the urgency of attaining the basic human rights long denied to Native Americans. "Racism is not sustainable. Racism in this institution in our lives is not sustainable on any level. Everyone is looking at and questioning multilateral institutions and asking what is going on. The foundation is cracking and everyone is asking questions," she stated.

Ms. Frichner also pointed out that students in elementary, middle and high schools do not know anything about the Native people of this country. She encouraged parents, teachers, students to start doing their own research. "The information is there. We just don't know about it. We just have to dig a little."

Ms. Frichner noted that the Declaration of Rights of Indigenous people was the longest debated document in the history of the UN. She went on to say that the members of CANZUS (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States) all intially voted "no" on the Declaration however in 2009, after much hard work by , Australia adopted the Declaration.

Ms. Frechner gave us many suggestions for getting the US to sign onto the UN Resolution, including approaching the Obama administration and lobbying for legislation on the issue. She also suggested asking local law makers "why is it that American Indians do not have human rights?"

The last speaker, John Dieffenbacher-Krall, spoke passionately about the lack of information available to most people in the US about Native Americans and the situations they face. Mr. Dieffenbacher-Krall initiated, and has been a key organizer in the successful effort to convince the Episcopal Church to renounce the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, which he described in detail.

He challenged the audience to start asking questions about the information not available to them. Parents need to ask schools what they know and teach about the Doctrine of Discovery and the Haudenosaunee, as well as why it is that the only time children learn about Native Americans is during Thanksgiving. He also challenged students to take the intiative to learn about these documents and teach themselves. He also challenged eveyone in his audience to consider critically what we hear, read, and view and reflect on it from an indigenous perspective.

Although the program went longer than anticipated, well over 50 people participated in followup discussion groups, with one group of 20 people continuing until nearly 11 pm. An effort to put together a local response for the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights Commission related to the Onondaga emerged from that discussion.

As an audience member I felt empowered to do exactly what I was challenged to do, and conduct my own research into these areas of interest. Tonight's speakers illiminated that what is written as history may not always be the truth, and therefore individual research and learning is needed. Through enhanced education on native issues, and increased awareness of the need to protect indigenous rights, we could join Australia and nearly all the rest of the world and pass the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People, and thus give basic human rights to Native Americans. As tonight's speakers attest, the information exists and is available, it is thus our responsibility to educate ourselves on the truth and work for change.

Kirsti, an intern with Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation, is a senior at Syracuse University.