Onondaga Land Rights & Our Common Future

Year-long series takes up the healing rejected by US Courts

Andy Mager

Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney (speaking above) was one of the community responders who expressed appreciation for the Onondaga Nation’s environmental work and shared thoughts about how their organizations could support the Nation’s “Vision for a Clean Onondaga Lake” presented at the April 19, 2010 program. Photo: Kristin Mosher

On February 22, nearly 300 people filled the Onondaga Nation School Auditorium for the closing celebration of the Onondaga Land Rights & Our Common Future series. The diverse mix of Onondaga people, Central New York residents and college students danced, ate and socialized together. Sherri Waterman-Hopper, director of the Haudenosaunee Singers and Dancers, was able to coax most of the visitors onto our feet to share in the cultural expression of dance. Before breaking for a reception, the series was closed by Tadodaho Sid Hill offering the traditional Onondaga Thanksgiving Address.

The educational series, which started in February 2010, featured thirteen events addressing a wide range of issues related to Onondaga Land Rights—from Onondaga Lake to hydrofracking to the Great Law of Peace and much more. Total series attendance was about 4,000 people. In addition to the presentations, discussion groups provided the opportunity for people to learn and share together. The collaborative series was coordinated by Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation (NOON) and sponsored by Syracuse University, SUNY-ESF, Le Moyne College, Empire State College, Onondaga Community College, seven other colleges and universities in the region, Interfaith Works, the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation and the Syracuse Center of Excellence.
The Onondaga Nation has provided important leadership in the effort to prevent hydrofracking in NYS. This critical environmental issue was the focus of the April 26, 2010 event. Denise Waterman (Oneida, Turtle Clan), above right, was joined on the panel by Onondaga educator Freida Jacques, Ithaca attorney and environmental activist Helen Slottje, and Syracuse activist Lindsay Speer. Photo: Kristin Mosher.

Starting off Strong
This year’s series drew sponsorship from a much larger regional group of educational institutions than the similar series coordinated by NOON in 2006. The opening series event featured a welcome by SU Chancellor Nancy Cantor and began with a showing of the short video “Brightening the Chain” followed by reflections from a group of Onondaga leaders featured in the documentary. Onondaga educator Dr. Stephanie Waterman’s remark that “I thank the Creator every day for the Syracuse Peace Council because they’ve really done a lot of good work for us and are really good allies and really good friends,” was a sign that not just the series but all of NOON’s work is deeply appreciated by the Onondaga Nation.

While it’s impossible to sum up thirteen diverse programs and two years of work in a short space, this article will provide an overview and some snapshots. The goal of the series was to continue the educational process necessary to lay the groundwork for a fair and respectful settlement of the Onondaga Land Rights Action filed six years ago on March 11, 2005 (see peacecouncil.net/NOON/land for background).

The programs featured Onondaga and other Haudenosaunee leaders, western scholars and community leaders and activists. Some of the most powerful programs featured conversations between Onondaga and non-native collaborators, such as Lacrosse: The Creator’s Game with Oren Lyons and Roy Simmons II, The Influence of Haudenosaunee Women with Jeanne Shenandoah and Sally Roesch Wagner and The Two Row Wampum and the Covenant Chain of Treaties with Irving Powless, Jr. and Robert W. Venables.

Presenting a New Vision for Onondaga Lake
; On April 19, 2010, Onondaga Chief Jake Edwards and Mohawk scientist Henry Lickers unveiled The Onondaga Nation’s Vision for a Clean Onondaga Lake. This poetic and uplifting vision follows the form of the traditional Onondaga Thanksgiving Address acknowledging the importance and role of all the plants, animals and other elements of the natural world (download a copy at onondaganation.org).
The “Doctrine of Discovery,” the pernicious legal doctrine used to justify the European conquest of Native America, was the focus of the March 1, 2010 program at Le Moyne College. SU professor and NOON activist Phil Arnold, Episcopal Church activist John Dieffenbacher-Krall and Onondaga lawyer and indigenous rights leader Tonya Gonella Frichner (above) described the history and current power of this racist concept and shared ideas for moving it into the dustbin of history. Photo: Kristin Mosher.

Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney, Andrew Maxwell, Syracuse Director of Planning and Sustainability, SUNY-ESF President Neil Murphy and Meredith Perreault of the Onondaga Environmental Institute each responded to the vision, expressing deep appreciation for the Onondaga’s role and support for their vision.

Acknowledging Sacred Ground
On June 14, 2010 Seneca artist and activist Peter Jemison and Ithaca College Anthropology professor Jack Rossen spoke at the program, The Ground Beneath Your Feet is Sacred: Haudenosaunee Cultural Resource Protection. They described the terrible disrespect for Native people shown by the laws and practices of New York State. Peter shared heart-wrenching stories from over 20 years of struggle to get New York to act on the obvious truth “that everyone’s ancestors, everyone’s human remains deserve the right and the dignity of a burial.”

“We were taught that science trumps sacredness,” noted Jack Rossen in describing his education as an archeologist. He went on to describe the efforts, in which he has played a leadership role, to move his profession toward respect of indigenous people and cultures. Jack then shared information from the archeological work he has coordinated at the early Cayuga Village Levanna Site, telling us that they are close to conclusive proof that the founding of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy dates to 909 AD, at least two centuries earlier than any previous “western-acknowledged” date. Reading the transcript will help you understand the momentous nature of this revelation.

The Courts Let Us Down Again
On September 22, 2010, the federal district court in Albany dismissed the Onondaga Land Rights Action. Oren Lyons shared his dismay about this decision two days later, before the main presentation on Native People in Popular Culture, Stereotypes and Mascots, saying in part, “it’s another disappointment in the long list of disappointments.” After reviewing some of the key historic moments and treaties, Oren noted “In treaties, the American public is the other half of it. This is a Nation of your rights as well as ours, and I think that this is a good enough time as any to begin a campaign to just say that and to see if we can bring this day in court about in an appeal.”

The following month’s program, Onondaga Land Rights: Progress for Mother Earth, provided an opportunity for Tadodaho Sid Hill and Onondaga Nation General Counsel Joe Heath to present a more in-depth response to the court ruling. Joe remarked, “Now it’s not a land rights case, it’s a land rights movement. And maybe the courts will catch up. But the consciousness of Central New York has been elevated. The aboriginal territory of the Onondaga Nation is acknowledged and understood, their ties to it are welcome.” The speakers also highlighted the many other signs of progress and success since the filing of the Land Rights Action in 2005.
Chief Irving Powless, Jr. participates in a discussion group following the Two Row Wampum and the Covenant Chain of Treaties presentation on July 12, 2010 at which he shared the platform with Dr. Robert Venables of Cornell University. Photo: NOON

Wisdom of the Elders

The Great Law of Peace, the basis of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, was the focus of discussion by Mohawk leader and elder Tom Porter, Onondaga clanmother Audrey Shenandoah and SUNY-ESF Professor and series organizer Jack Manno. It was a delight to hear recollections from two leaders with well over a century of combined wisdom. Tom, who almost cancelled because of a cold, really

A great deal of information from the series is available online: videos, photos, transcripts and more at:
peacecouncil. net/NOON/commonfuture.

To keep in touch with NOON’s work, join our email announcements list on the same site.

warmed up after the first hour, sharing stories from his youth in addition to humorous observations of current events. You could hear a pin drop at Syracuse Stage as those in attendance could understand what a special opportunity we had that evening.

The series organizing committee was delighted by the success of the series, and looks forward to continuing to strengthen our relationship with the Onondaga Nation and working to educate our community about the concerns of the Onondaga people so that together we can restore our shared natural environment and work together for healing and justice.

Andy, a longtime SPC staffperson and member of NOON, coordinated the series described above.