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 o=ering
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 >nally 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 >led 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 signi>cance 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 in?ict it on their neighbors. Instead the suit
is termed a “land rights action.” When they >nally 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 di=erent 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
in?ammatory letters to the editor. But in Onondaga territory, the
response has been di=erent, 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