Our debt to nature
A Letter to the Editor
The Post-Standard, Syracuse, New York
Sunday, December 5, 2004
Our Haudenosaunee Confederacy, a league of five Indian Nations, was born on the shores of Onondaga Lake nearly 1,000 years ago, but our people have lived beside the lake since time immemorial.
The Onondaga Nation, the spiritual center for the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, is connected to this body of water by ties that transcend time and space. Our ancestors walked the paths around Onondaga Lake. They hunted, fished and paddled across its once-blue waters. Most certainly, they stopped on its shores to give thanksgivings for all the Creator had given them.
One of our fundamental laws is to treat all elements of our natural world with respect. As a people, we are connected to the land, the lake and all, the creatures that fly above it, walk along its shores and swim beneath the waves. This is the unity of the natural world.
SEAN KIRST, columnist
Post-Standard, Friday, March 11, 2005
Sid Hill still remains unsure. Today, in federal court, he will lead a contingent of Onondagas as they file documents asserting ownership to 4,000 square miles of Upstate land, from the Thousand Islands, through Syracuse to the Pennsylvania border.
Yet Hill, tadodaho of his Iroquois nation, continues to worry about putting a dream that helps to define his people into the hands of a system with no real place for Indians.
"We're going into your courts for what's supposed to be best and right," Hill said. "Can you see our side? Is it possible for you to see our emotion and how it feels with what we've lost? Our health? The treatment of our people? Does that mean anything to a judge? To homeowners? To anybody?"
The self-doubt underlines why Hill was chosen for his ancient role at Onondaga. The job is based on humility, rather than political cunning or ruthlessness. When the tadodaho steps into the longhouse, he is supposed to see all sides of a dispute by shedding loyalty to even his clan and closest friends.
Hill, 54, was concerned at first about whether he was the right choice. He's a quiet construction worker, a guy who often shows up to watch his son play youth hockey in the Valley. "I'd rather be building something than doing this," he said of the land claim, which is at a point where it consumes most of his time.
Not that he's positive, even now, it's the right thing to do.
The danger, he said, lies in what could be lost. Generations of children at Onondaga have grown up with stories of the stolen land, until that tradition intertwines with cultural identity. No one can guess how a court action might turn out, and rejection of the claim would kill whatever hope comes from the old stories, which is the burden Hill will carry to the courthouse today.
To him, the claim is not about complex legal disputes. It is about the profound loss and sorrow of his people, a sorrow epitomized by the saga of Hill's parents. Both were taken from their homes as young children and put into "state schools," he said. They were forbidden to speak their own native language. They were mocked and punished for eating leeks, an onionlike plant that grew wild in the fields.
The intention, Hill said, was to save the child and kill the Indian.
His father, Oliver, was sent to combat in the Pacific during World War II. He came home with terrors he never shared with his family, terrors he subdued by turning to drink, until he finally left his wife and kids and moved to Syracuse. Hill's mother expressed no anger at her husband, even as she raised his children by herself.
Oliver, she told her family, "was born at the wrong time."
Hill came to see his father as representative of countless Indian lives, in which repressed emotions ripped families apart. As a boy, Hill grew aware of the alcoholism and diabetes that were claiming the lives of his people. All of that was somehow tied to stories of the stolen land, and it provided a challenge for Hill as tadodaho. He saw no point in moving with the claim until the Onondagas could free themselves from a poisoned sentiment:
"You grow up hating white people because of the history," he said.
For anyone who knows Sid Hill, gentle and soft-spoken, it is hard to envision him as a hater. Instead of being angry or defensive, he wants to address the fears that greeted other Iroquois land claims. Hill said his people oppose casino gambling, so often the source of community suspicion. He said the Onondagas would never evict homeowners or try to seize anyone's land.
"We've been displaced," Hill said. "We know what it's like."
What the Onondagas want, he said, is fair negotiations—as well as a "seat at the table" when it comes to regional planning decisions that might detract from air and water quality, or might allow unchecked sprawl to swallow up more woods and farms.
Thursday morning, for Hill, provided one last chance to brace for what is coming. He has no idea how his own quiet life will be affected by the claim, or if communities beyond Onondaga will react with defiance and harsh words. He overcomes his hesitation by thinking of "faces beneath the ground"—an Onondaga expression for children yet unborn—as well as by remembering the generations that dreamed this day would come.
Hill began naming, one by one, old chiefs who are now dead, men who spent their lives waiting for this day. He spoke of the strange feeling of being tadodaho at this point in history, when the claim and all it means finally gets into court, a moment of mingled triumph and fear.
And then the tadodaho of the Onondaga Nation, the guy whose job is seeing every side of a dispute, surrendered for a while and could not speak through his tears.
Someday he'll know, once this claim is resolved, if he was born at the right time.
Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Post-Standard
His columns appear Monday, Wednesday, Friday
Call him at 470-6015
Email him at email@example.com
© 2005 The Post-Standard
It is with great sorrow that we have witnessed the damage to Onondaga Lake and the life forms that depend on it. The facts are shameful. Onondaga Lake now contains more poisons and toxins than any body of water its size on this continent. In addition to the contamination in the lake itself, there are vast quantities of additional toxic materials along its shores, many in unsecured landfills and waste pits that continuously seep into the lake every day of the year, adding new poisons to old.
After two decades of debate, blame, studies, lawsuits, more studies and court mandates, state officials finally presented the long-awaited cleanup plan last week to the public. Just a week before it was released, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation sent officials armed with a brief power-point demonstration to visit the Onondaga Nation Longhouse.
As the lead agency designing the clean-up plan and overseeing its implementation, the DEC is mandated to consult with any Native nations that may have a concern when any project affecting them is planned. Clearly, activities on the lake are a matter of concern to us.
The DEC never actually consulted the Onondaga Nation about this plan, or provided an opportunity for government-to-government dialogue. The officials came, showed their slide show and left. Their visit to the Longhouse was perfunctory, almost an afterthought. In all likelihood, the plan was already in print.
After hearing their words, we expressed our strong disagreement with a plan that would clean up only a portion of Onondaga Lake, and cover up the tons of mercury with a sand cap. The Onondaga Council of Chiefs objected to this incomplete proposal, and urged the removal of all mercury and all other contaminating metals, chemicals and toxins that poison fish and render the lake unsuitable for use by humans and animals.
Our mandates, our thanksgivings do not designate care for only a percentage of the gifts we have been given; we acknowledge them all as equal components of our life here on Earth. And we feel duty bound to care for them. In the same way as deadly cancers are removed from the human body to give a person a chance to live, so it must be with Onondaga Lake.
Waters are life. Springs, rivers, streams, puddles, rain, snow, the dew on the grass— all have a purpose. So, too, does Onondaga Lake. The lake must be given a chance to survive. Those who despoiled it must be held accountable for the damage they have done.
The Nation looks to New York state, the government that sat back and allowed the pollution to go on unchecked, to finally hold the wrongdoers fully responsible and require a complete cleanup. The state had the power to stop the poisoning and didn't exercise it. It now has the power to order a full cleanup. The failure to do so transfers responsibility to the state itself.
Sidney Hill is the Tadodaho, the chief of the Onondaga Nation Council of Chiefs.
The Claim and the Cause
Onondagas say their rights
empower the fight for a clean environment
A Letter to the Editor
The Post-Standard, Syracuse, NY
Sunday, March 13, 2005
Behind the Salt Museum on the Onondaga Lake waterfront, a large sign trumpets "A Changing Fishery." The sign notes that many years ago, my people, the Onondaga, as well as people of European descent who were settling in Central New York, caught and ate the fish that lived in the lake. Then, with the advent of industry, the lake became too polluted and the fish became too toxic to eat. Now, the lake has become somewhat cleaner—but the fish that we catch still cannot be eaten.
Even in the "cleanest" of our lakes, you can only eat one fish meal per month, as eating more would be too dangerous.
People still live on the shores of Onondaga Lake, not quite as my people once lived, though the homes are still modest and the families still work hard to make ends meet. But industrial plants and their toxic pollution intermingle too frequently with those who reside and work in the area. For example, on the opposite side of the lake, a school in Solvay sits facing the large exhaust pipes of the recycling plant. Other plants dot the nearby landscape. What exactly are the children breathing in?
The Onondaga Nation has filed suit to reclaim our rights to our ancestral territories. The legal arguments are well known at this point—New York state seized our land through agreements that were illegal according to federal law. But the concept of land rights and what that includes—and does not include—is somewhat foreign to contemporary society.
We intend to use our rights to this land as a legal and moral force for the environment and the Earth—to clean up polluted areas and protect those areas not yet defiled for generations to come.
Our land rights action encompasses a large swath of Central New York, from north of Watertown to south of Binghamton. In asserting our rights, however, we will not seek to evict anyone or disturb anyone now living on our territory. We want to live in peace with our neighbors, and our hearts reach out to the students of that school in Solvay and their parents. With our lawsuit, we can help fight to protect them.
Our Nation looks at the ecological disaster of Onondaga Lake, the most polluted in North America, and we weep. A century of degradation caused by callous corporations and indifferent government officials has transformed the lake, the center of Onondaga way of life and culture, into a toxic pool hostile to fish, wildlife and humans alike.
Within the waters and sediments of the lake, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has found dangerous levels of mercury, pesticides, creosote, polycyclic hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds, lead, cobalt, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). The proposed "clean-up" of this toxic soup was drawn up without our input (another violation of federal law) and is completely inadequate. This proposal will leave far too much of these toxins in the lake sediment and it fails to account for the pollution that continues to drain into the lake from more than a dozen different environmental hazards.
Left alone or subjected to sham or token clean-up efforts, the lake will never regain its health and ecological balance. Further, neither Honeywell, the corporation now responsible for much of this pollution, nor the state can predict what impact this proposed plan will have on mercury levels in the fish tissue or in the lake water.
Corporations should not dump their waste and then take away their jobs once the land has been sufficiently defiled. Central New York was once filled with amazing amounts of natural beauty, and the Onondaga want to reclaim that beauty for everyone. It is our calling, and it is our right.
Sidney Hill is tadodaho (spiritual leader) of the Onondaga Nation.
© 2005 The Post-Standard.
A Time to Heal
Onondaga land-rights action
seeks to heal people, too
A Letter to the Editor
The Post-Standard, Syracuse, NY
Readers’ Page, March 20, 2006
On March 11, 2005, we, the Onondaga Nation, filed our land rights legal case in the United States District Court. As we mark the anniversary of this filing, we give thanks for who we are, all we have and for all our good neighbors. We invite everyone to join us in looking back over the last year’s accomplishments.
In the land-rights action, we explained our intent to begin a healing process between ourselves and all others who live in this region that has been the homeland of the Onondaga Nation since the beginning of time.
We will not use this action to displace any of our neighbors, nor will we open or operate casinos. We want this action resolved in a way that preserves, not disrupts, the social fabric of our nation, as well as those of our neighbors. We want to use this action to heal the rift between the people and the land.
But many have asked, what is healing? How do you heal people and the land? How will a legal action produce healing? The first step in healing is to acknowledge the wound. You cannot heal an injury that you refuse to acknowledge.
No one is happy when they do not understand those around them. No one can live in peace when the waters are poisoned, the land contaminated, fish too toxic to eat, and the air too polluted to breathe.
To begin healing our people, there must be acknowledgement that our land was taken. It was taken long ago in violation of numerous treaties, federal laws, and the United States Constitution. When our land was unjustly seized, our people were wounded. Our culture and traditions were damaged.
Our neighbors were also wounded by actions that most living nearby today have no knowledge of. You were robbed of the chance to live side-by-side in harmony with a culture that understood and cared for this land for centuries before your ancestors arrived. And we were robbed of the opportunity to learn and grow together.
If we are successful in our legal action, there will be a court decision that your leaders will have to recognize. We are hopeful of success, but uncertain whether the Onondaga Nation can obtain justice in your legal system. But we know that acknowledgement which produces justice is essential for healing.
We are not waiting on a court schedule to dictate healing our neighbors and the environment. No one is above the trees, above the water, or above the others who live on this land.
These things are not ours to control, and anyone who doubts this belief need look no further than the escalating changes in the environment.
This past year, we have made our voice heard on the “cleanup” of Onondaga Lake and the former factories and toxic waste dumps that sit in the lake’s watershed.
We have documented where government-approved plans call for leaving tons of mercury and other toxics in the land and water, and instead we insisted that all efforts should make the lake clean enough to eat the fish and for plants and animals to thrive.
All lesser standards are inferior and should be as unacceptable to you, our neighbors, as they are to us.
We have worked to help others raise their voices on issues throughout our historic territory, as well. We would like to give thanks to Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation (NOON) who have worked tirelessly to educate their friends and neighbors about us, our land-rights action, and what both mean for central New Yorkers.
By working together to heal Mother Earth, we are working to heal each other.
You, too, are invited to join the healing.
Sidney Hill is tadodaho, or spiritual leader, of the Onondaga Nation Council of Chiefs.