tion of the lake. After decades of foot-dragging, the company and
the state and federal governments have o=ered 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 o=
the mindset of the frontier, the mindset that allows people to
bury sacred sites under industrial waste, to >ll 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 o=ered in healing.
Even after everything, that the people who su=ered so greatly
can now turn to their neighbors with such a gift seems an act of
immense generosity. The Onondaga people are o=ering 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. a
What is your dream for the land? Share your thoughts and consider
the dreams of fellow readers at orionmagazine.org.
Winter Is a Big Empty House
Also cold. There is no heat
or maybe no one has started up the furnace.
We’re standing on the porch, the dogs and I,
the place between indoors and out some of you might call
by other names, ones that end in a vowel
or mean “any room grown over with vines.”
It isn't on the map because it always moves
but the air there is as gold as pears
and smells like apples, which excites the dogs
who want to eat everything along with the cricket
in the corner who won't stop playing even
when it's time to go in. I do not want to go in,
to the hallways where people are shivering,
entire floors once flooded, now black and reeking,
where bad dreams are stacked like magazines,
molding, unread and unreadable.
I want to stay here sniffing, sipping fresh-pressed juice
the color of chestnuts while white smoke of morning fog
burns holes in the sky, like snow in summer,
hot and cold, burning and freezing, paradise, the fall.
— Emily Wheeler