Neighbor to Neighbor, Nation to Nation: Water Connects Us All

by Robert Kehoe


The Westcott Community Center was standing room only on March 24, 2005 as members of the Onondaga Nation and Joe Heath, local attorney, spoke to the audience on the historic land rights action recently filed by the Nation.

It was amazing to learn how this suit differs from actions of other nations of the Haudenosaunee. The Onondaga Nation suit seeks rights to the land as a legal and moral force for environmental clean-up, environmental protection and equal participation in the choices that are made for said protection and clean-up. The Nation does not seek to claim the land, evicting present "owners", nor does it seek the default remedy of a casino as other nations have chosen. The Onondaga people simply want the water, land and air returned to the condition it was in when they illegally lost those items in the 18th and 19th centuries. They want this not only for the benefit of themselves but instead for the benefit of all inhabitants of the area. It should be noted that all speakers were abundantly clear on this. It becomes clear then, to even the most casual observer, that an enormous amount of thought and discussion has taken place in this action.

Joan Cope Savage opened the discussion giving thanks for the Onondaga Creek watershed including Butternut and Meadowbrook creeks. Joan explained that being at the Westcott Community Center, we were in the edge of the Onondaga Creek watershed; whatever we did with water in that area affected Onondaga Creek and Onondaga Lake.She spoke of how all people are connected to the water indicated through the ancient Hopi saying: "WE ARE WATER".

Ms. Savage proudly introduced Jeanne Shenandoah of the Eel Clan family. Ms. Shenandoah gave an emotional talk of the Ononadagas’ connection to the lake and its tributaries. Ancestral tradition calls for the Nation to give thanks to the water spirits for the water itself and everything around them. This was celebrated often because it was recognized how precious and meaningful water is for survival. She closed by telling the audience the current plan for "clean up" is "cover up".

Sid Hill, the Onondagas’ Tadodaho, or spiritual leader spoke next. Mr. Hill is a reserved and humble individual striking this writer as someone who is full of wisdom. He began by telling the audience his vision for the lake clean-up is a matter of making things "right" not merely "better". He indicated within this framework the earth is free and for everybody, nobody can take the earth away including governments or industry and most importantly "you can’t be environmentalists you are the environment".

Mr. Hill next recited a moving ancient pray known as "Thanks for the Thunder" (because it brings the rain) spoken in the native language of his people. This pray gives thanks to the people, plants, animals, things we plant, wind, waters (from largest to smallest bodies, streams, brooks etc.), wind, sun, creator and stars (they help dampen the plants). Moving back to the English language Mr. Hill wisely told the audience not to take the water for granted. It’s how we use and abuse it that leads to problem labeling it as a "Disgrace".

Mr. Hill concluded his talk on the struggle of the Haudenosaunee to preserve their ancient traditions especially language. Story telling is an important medium for learning that is being used to accomplish this.

The evening’s discussion concluded with a presentation from attorney Joe Heath on the Onondaga suit. Mr. Heath responded to questions from the audience as a means to tell us where we are at and how we intend to proceed:

Q – Is the Midland plant included in the suit as part of the overall land rights action?

A – (i) It is as well as the proposed Clinton plant since they both have the same overall plan. They are both using chemical treatment which will lead to 41 organic compounds going into the lake.

(ii) The DEC lake bottom plan is no plan at all but a "cover up". It has no scientific values because mercury has been removed from a depth of 60ft below the lake bottom. It’s not known if the cap will get the mercury out of the fish or water long term.

(iii) There is no plan to clean up sites around the lake (the chemical pits found abundantly around the areas west of the lake along the path of Nine Mile Creek)

(iv) Finally he indicated that an environmental attorney and engineer are on board with him. They have indicated that what Honeywell is offering is no where good enough. This lake used to be a source of white fish that was a delicacy in the finest restaurants in New York City. In addition the Solvay shoreline used to be home to many resorts because the lake was so clean. "The Onondagas want the lake as clean as when it was stolen".

Q- Will this suit take 20 years to settle as other suits (Haudenosaunee) have?

A – He indicated this is a different suit than other NY tribes, stressing that it is not a "claim" but "land rights" action. He also stressed the important point that casinos will not be part of any settlement.

Q- What do you say to the opposition?

A – Generally, the opposition does not believe in sovereign land. They say it’s invalid. But they are misinformed. This is so because the opposition has been left behind by their government (NY who illegally took the land without Federal approval). It will take time to reach out to them.

Q – Are there any suits similar to this one or is this new?

A – This is new, unique and hasn’t been tried before.