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The Rights of the Land

The Onondaga Nation of central New York proposes a radical new vision of property rights

by Robin Kimmerer

Published in the November/December 2008 issue of Orion magazine




Before first light we board a bus and at last light we return, just as the October hills of central New York shade to burgundy and the lights come on in dairy barns for evening chores. Teachers, students, clan mothers, chiefs, journalists, scientists, activists, and neighbors like me—I see all our faces reflected in the bus windows. For the Onondaga, this trip to federal court in Albany to defend their right to care for their land has been a long time coming, a journey of generations.

The highway rises out of the enfolding hills to a ridge, where the land suddenly spreads out below. I see forests, farms, orchards, and, in the distance, the lights of downtown Syracuse. Plumes from smokestacks catch the rosy light above Onondaga Lake, a pewter oval reflecting the sky.

The first part of this tale is familiar, which makes it no less shameful. The ancestral territory of the Onondaga stretches from the Pennsylvania border north to Canada. Historically, it was a mosaic of rich woodlands, expansive cornfields, lakes, and rivers. Rights to these lands were guaranteed by treaties between two sovereign nations, Onondaga and the United States. But over the years, illegal takings of land by the state of New York diminished the aboriginal Onondaga territories from 2.6 million acres to a tiny reservation of just 7,300 acres.

The Nation’s current territory does not even include the heart of their ancestral home, Onondaga Lake, one of Native America’s most sacred sites. In the seminal Onondaga story of the Peacemaker, a figure appeared across the water of Onondaga Lake during a time of war, a beautiful youth in a white stone canoe. The stone canoe signifies the weight of the message with which he was entrusted, the Great Law of Peace. Most people of the warring nations turned him away; few would listen. But as the Peacemaker grew to old age, one by one the leaders finally heard the message of peace and set aside their war clubs. On the shore of Onondaga Lake, the Peacemaker gathered together all fifty of the reconciled chiefs. To signify the peace, they cast their weapons into a great hole, on top of which the Peacemaker planted an enormous white pine.

The five bundled needles of the white pine represent the union of five tribes: the Onondaga, Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, and Mohawk. Its roots, spread out to the four directions, represent the invitation to all to live by the Great Law, which sets forth a vision of right relationships between people and the Earth. Thus was born what the European settlers understood as the Great League of the Iroquois, what the people themselves call the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the oldest continuous democracy on Earth.

Chief Irving Powless Jr., an Onondaga elder, likes to remind listeners that walking beside the Peacemaker was Hiawatha—not Longfellow’s invention, but the real one. It was Hiawatha, standing by this very lake, who bound together the five arrows. One arrow alone, he said, can be broken, but the bundle of five is too strong. The structure of the Iroquois Confederacy became the model for the colonist’s new union, and the symbolism stands today: the eagle in the great seal of the United States holds those five arrows in its talons. It was beneath that very seal that the Onondaga pled their case in federal court.

Chief Powless also likes to say that when the colonists adapted Haudenosaunee ideas for their government, they took only the parts that they liked. “If it were up to us, we wouldn’t have written the Bill of Rights without a Bill of Responsibilities,” he told me.

Despite its status as the birthplace of American democracy, there is no monument on the shores of Onondaga Lake. Today, the soil where the Peacemaker walked is a Superfund site. In fact, it’s not soil at all, but a slippery white mass of industrial waste, thirty feet deep, left over from soda ash production by Allied Chemical. More than 144 million tons of mercury-laden waste were spewed onto the lake bottom. The water is a stew of sewage and assorted toxic wastes. If you walk on the waste beds, you can see rusting barrels, oozing leachate. The sacred and the Superfund share this shore.

ON A FIELD TRIP to the lake with school kids from the Onondaga Nation, Audrey Shenandoah shares her memories, recalling the lake as a place “where the willows touch the water”—a beautiful place, a place for fishing, for gathering plants, for family picnics, for ceremonies. Audrey is a clan mother, writer, and teacher. As an advisor to the United Nations, she has been a voice on behalf of indigenous peoples and the environment all over the world. The teaching of “think not of yourself, but of the seventh generation” is not an abstraction for her. “We were told to hold tight to our way of life,” she says, “to honor our ancient teachings, not just for ourselves but for everyone.” Just as water and birds and fish were given certain responsibilities in the world, so too were the people. They are called upon to give thanks and to take care of all the other gifts.

For these school kids, the day begins and ends not with the Pledge of Allegiance, but with the Thanksgiving Address, known also as the “words that come before all else.” This river of words calls out to every element of the living world. Water, trees, fish, birds, and berries are thanked for the gifts that they provide, for meeting their responsibilities and sustaining life. Clan mother Freida Jacques explains it this way: “We have a culture of gratitude. These words are used to open and close all gatherings in our daily lives, bringing the listeners’ minds together in offering thanksgiving, love, and respect to the natural world.”

Audrey gazes out over the lake, her snowy hair swept to a graceful knot at the nape of her neck. “When I was a little girl,” she says, “I always heard talk about a land settlement. This was the dream I’ve heard all of my life.” That dream is finally inching closer to reality, and with it, quite unexpectedly, comes a process of healing and transformation for an entire region.

ON MARCH 11, 2005, the Onondaga Nation filed a complaint in a federal court in Syracuse seeking title to their lost homelands. Their claim is made under United States law, but its moral power lies in the directives of the Great Law: to act on behalf of peace, the natural world, and the future generations. The motion begins with this statement:

The Onondaga people wish to bring about a healing between themselves and all others who live in this region that has been the homeland of the Onondaga Nation since the dawn of time. The Nation and its people have a unique spiritual, cultural, and historic relationship with the land, which is embodied in Gayanashagowa, the Great Law of Peace. This relationship goes far beyond federal and state legal concerns of ownership, possession, or other legal rights. The people are one with the land and consider themselves stewards of it. It is the duty of the Nation’s leaders to work for a healing of this land, to protect it, and to pass it on to future generations. The Onondaga Nation brings this action on behalf of its people on the hope that it may hasten the process of reconciliation and bring lasting justice, peace, and respect among all who inhabit this area.

The lawsuit is not a land “claim,” because to the Onondaga land has far greater significance than the notion of property. Sid Hill, the Tadodaho, or spiritual leader, of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, has said that the Onondaga Nation will never seek to evict people from their homes. The Onondaga people know the pain of displacement too well to inflict it on their neighbors. Instead the suit is termed a “land rights action.” When they finally got their day in court last October, members of the Onondaga Nation argued that the land title they’re seeking is not for possession, not to exclude, but for the right to participate in the well-being of the land. Against the backdrop of Euro-American thinking, which treats land as a bundle of property rights, the Onondaga are asking for freedom to exercise their responsibility to the land. This is unheard of in American property law.

In other land claims around the country, some tribes have negotiated for cash, land, and casino deals, reaching for relief from grinding poverty on the last shreds of their territories. But the Onondaga envision a radically different solution that honors their ancestral land and their spiritual responsibilities to it. Above all, the land rights action seeks title for the purpose of ecological restoration. Only with title can they ensure that mines are reclaimed, toxic waste removed, and Onondaga Lake cleaned up. The action strengthens the ability of the Onondaga to exercise their traditional role as stewards of their homelands. Tadodaho Sid Hill says, “We had to stand by and watch what happens to Mother Earth, but nobody listens to what we think. The land rights action will give us a voice.”

The legal action concerns not only rights to the land, but also the rights of the land, its right to be whole and healthy. Audrey Shenandoah makes the goal clear. “In this land rights action,” she says, “we seek justice. Justice for the waters. Justice for the four-legged and the winged, whose habitats have been taken. We seek justice, not just for ourselves, but justice for the whole of Creation.”

The land rights action could have incited a backlash. In other parts of New York State, citizens opposed to land rights cases have mounted responses as ugly as they are ill-informed, including handmade roadside signs decrying native land rights and inflammatory letters to the editor. But in Onondaga territory, the response has been different, marked by thoughtful conversation, by respect, and, in some places, singing.

AS THE ONONDAGA NATION stands up for justice, it is not standing alone. At the forefront of this community support is a grassroots organization of central New Yorkers called Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation, or NOON. It is an outgrowth of the Syracuse Peace Council, the oldest continuing peace and justice organization in the country. Andy Mager, a young father and skillful community organizer, had pulled many of us together for the bus trip to Albany, but the work of the Neighbors goes far beyond that.

As a bulwark against intolerance, NOON has made pathways between the Onondaga Nation and the wider community. Andy knew that the process of healing needed to begin with truth-telling, and with listening. The average person in Syracuse knows almost nothing about the sovereign nation that sits just six miles south of their city, and some folks were wary that the Onondaga action would somehow jeopardize the surrounding community.

Because opportunities for misconception abound, bringing unheard stories to a wider audience has been a focus for NOON. Every few weeks for over a year, NOON has orchestrated a community program entitled “The Onondaga Land Rights Action and Our Common Future.” On warm summer evenings and dark snowy nights, people have come to a local theater to hear about the history and culture of the Onondaga, stories that escaped the history books: of the origin of consensus-based democracy, of a society based on a balance between male and female leadership, of a culture of gratitude and the Great Law of Peace. Most evenings, there were two spotlit chairs on the dark stage, chairs filled by some combination of indigenous scholars, university professors, clan mothers, grassroots leaders, politicians, scientists, lawyers, all come to think collectively about what the land rights action could mean.

One night, Chief Powless addressed the crowd, framing the land rights action in a historical context. “Sharing our ancient teachings is not just for understanding the past, but for a vision of what the future can hold,” he said. Fumbling with something in his lap for a moment, he drew from its deerskin wrap a wide belt intricately woven of shell beads: the historic Two Row Wampum. He held it between his outstretched hands and explained that the two paths of purple wampum that travel the length of the white-shell belt represent the treaty between the Dutch and the Haudenosaunee more than four hundred years ago. The white ground of the belt represents the river of life down which we all travel. One purple band stands for the indigenous people, traveling in their canoe. The other represents the newcomers, in their ship. The belt documents the agreement that the two lines do not intersect, the colonists carry their ways with them on the ship, the Haudenosaunee hold theirs in their canoes, and neither will try to steer the other’s vessel. “Two boats on the same river,” he said, is “an agreement to live side by side. But we’re both on the same river. We need the same water. We’re going to the same place.”

“This belt,” he continued, gently putting it back into its wrapping, “reminds us that our futures are linked. The only way we have is forward, into the future, together.” Holding the audience in the spell of his gentle voice, he explained that if the land is not healed, if the waters are not clean, then neither of us has a future. The land rights action is for us all.

Because of the bold action of NOON, people whose paths had never before crossed find themselves on common ground. Teachers are inspired to tell new stories in their classrooms, and citizens are organizing public meetings on the future of the lake. Neighborly relations have begun to blossom from casual conversations into work parties on the reservation, shared dinners, and other community gatherings. The past few years have brought the Nation and the city together at a concert by a community-wide choir singing to the lake, candlelight vigils in the city square, shared ceremonies on the shore, and a community celebration with Onondaga members teaching the Friendship Dance. The Onondaga have also formed an alliance with minority neighborhoods in the city, calling for environmental justice and stringent lake cleanup.

Out of this climate of community building, the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment has taken root at a local university, the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. One of its first programs was to hold a teach-in on the land rights action that reached thousands of students and community members. The curriculum now includes “Onondaga Land Rights and our Common Future,” a class co-taught by faculty from SUNY-ESF and the Onondaga Nation, in which students envision alternative environmental futures growing from the philosophy of the Thanksgiving Address. What would it be like, they ask, to care for and be cared for by the land? Their proposals imagine a future where the interests of great blue herons have equal standing with those of property owners, where urban developments are modeled after the lifestyles of maple trees, powered by solar energy and carbon-neutral. Wounded landscapes would not be abandoned so that new ones could be plundered, but nurtured back to health with the tools of restoration ecology. Communities would cement their relationship to the places that sustain them with ceremony and celebration.

The state of New York has argued that the land rights action will be disruptive, but so far it has been profoundly creative of community—a whole community, a democracy of species, both human and nonhuman. “The beauty of this action breaks my heart,” one woman said. “But it makes me want to be brave, too. If the Onondaga can stand up for this place, then why can’t I?”

The Onondaga now wait for a ruling on the land rights action. They may have to wait a long time. But then again, they’ve waited before.

HISTORICALLY central New York has been known as a birthplace of democracy, a birthplace of abolition and of women’s rights. Through the leadership of the Onondaga and the hunger for wholeness among the rest of the people who live here, this landscape could be a birthplace again—a birthplace of the rights of the land itself and of a community’s willing responsibility to care for it.

In time, the land rights action could also lead to the rebirth of Onondaga Lake. In the last few years, the lake has given signs of hope, with marked improvements in water quality. The shifts have come as the factories have closed and sewage discharge has been reduced. The water, too, has done its part. With lessened inputs, the lakes and streams seem to be cleaning themselves as the water moves through. In some places, plants are starting to inhabit the bottom. Just this spring, trout were found once again in the lake. It seems to me that the waters are reminding the people: if you will use your healing gifts, we will use ours.

And now, Allied Chemical, which eventually merged with Honeywell, Inc., is finally being held accountable for the condition of the lake. After decades of foot-dragging, the company and the state and federal governments have offered a cleanup plan that calls for dredging the most contaminated sediments and covering the rest with a few inches of sand. Unfortunately, this leaves the bulk of the contaminants spread over the entire lake bottom, where they can easily enter the food chain. Chief Powless characterizes the solution as “prescribing a Band-Aid for cancer.”

The Onondaga Nation has called for a thorough cleanup of their sacred lake, but, without title, their voice has not been heard. The U.S. legal system has not been friendly toward indigenous land rights. Too often, when the well-being of its lands are being discussed, the Nation has had to litigate its way to the table instead of being invited as a sovereign entity.

Joe Heath is the attorney and tireless advocate for the Onondaga Nation. Lately, Joe’s phone rings with requests from towns throughout the aboriginal territory for inclusion in the dreamed-of restoration. These communities too have been damaged. They too have been marginalized by corporate interests. Joe carefully tracks the reports of environmental injury, creating a growing list of work to be done. The Onondaga, once made voiceless by the law, are gaining respect as a voice for the land.

And while the Onondaga didn’t take this action with the intent of acquiring other people’s lands, lands are coming to them nonetheless. A local businessman is calling upon the county legislature to return lakeshore lands to the Nation. Others are willingly selling lands adjacent to the reserve to protect them from suburban development. Another extraordinary example, miles from the reservation, is a beautiful old dairy farm of green meadows and maple woods. It has been in one family for generations, bestowed by New York State for services rendered in the Revolutionary War. Those well-loved acres have been passed down again and again. But the deed carries a clause written by that long-ago forebear that one day the land must be returned to “the Indians from whom it was taken.” A few years ago, the last heir, now elderly, contacted the Nation to give back what was rightfully theirs.

A neighbor of mine wonders, “Should I give back my land, too?” But that’s not what the Onondaga are teaching. They don’t ask that we give the land back, but that we give back to the land, to care for it as if it were our home, too.

I think that the land rights action is an invitation for the people of this watershed to engage in becoming indigenous to place. No newcomer can ever match the Onondaga’s identity with these hills, but what does it mean for an immigrant culture to start thinking like a native one? Not to appropriate the culture of indigenous people, not to take what is theirs, but to throw off the mindset of the frontier, the mindset that allows people to bury sacred sites under industrial waste, to fill a lake with mercury. Being indigenous to place means to live as if we’ll be here for the long haul, to take care of the land as if our lives, both spiritual and material, depended on it. Because they do.

The Earth is generous with us—and forgiving. We can be the same with each other. Becoming indigenous to place also means embracing its story, because the restoration of the land and the healing of our relationship mirror one another. Coming to terms with injustice is an act of liberation. By making the past visible, we can then see our way forward. I suppose that’s why some of us rode the bus to court with our Onondaga neighbors—to bear witness to the telling of truth and to accept the hand offered in healing.

Even after everything, that the people who suffered so greatly can now turn to their neighbors with such a gift seems an act of immense generosity. The Onondaga people are offering us a gift of vision. Out of their endless thanksgiving for the land, they are inviting us to dream of a time when the land might also give thanks for the people.

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Robin Kimmerer’s book, Gathering Moss, was awarded the 2005 John Burroughs Medal. She is a professor of botany at State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and tends an old farm in upstate New York.

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