The nations of CNY

I never thought I’d see the day when major media outlets like CBS News were writing about the Haudenosaunee and talking about sovereignty issues, but I guess that day is finally here. Because these issues are bigger than all of us, it seemed futile to try and write about them while the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team passport issue was in the news last week. (I hope everyone has taken time to read the Sports Illustrated story about the team that was published in the most recent issue.) It was also a little surreal to search on the word “Iroquois” on Twitter and see dozens of tweets a minute about the U.S., the U.K. and Haudenosaunee passports. I’m not sure the Internet peanut gallery really grasped the gravity of the issues over passports and sovereignty, but the response seemed mostly outraged… possibly because we just got done with a World Cup that was triumphantly played out in Africa for the first time; and sports and post-colonial national identity were maybe still entwined in the back of people’s minds.

Now that this difficult week for the team has come to a conclusion (the team arrived back in Syracuse today), hopefully we here in Central New York can also “come home” to this issue as it pertains to us. The national media will quickly lose interest in the subject, leaving us to confront something that was always on our doorsteps, whether we wanted to think about it consciously or not. What does “nationhood” mean? Can you overlay nations on top of each other, like you can overlay area codes? Is it possible that the official, black-and-white, cut-and-dried American motto “Out of many, one” is actually “Out of many… still several?”

I don’t know how to tackle these weighty questions (and neither, I suspect, will the national media), so I will address the most pressing issue for us here locally: What would it mean to live in a New York that is also Iroquoia? Or an Onondaga County that is also a territory called “Onondaga”? What does it mean to grow up in, and live in, a Syracuse that is next to and part of a sovereign nation? All just people living here, but not the same people. All in the same boat, but not.

At this point, you come up against the first mental barrier. Either you accept there is (or even just may possibly be) a sovereign nation besides the U.S. here, or you don’t. Either you can look at it a different way than the history books may say – or you cannot, or do not. So the following isn’t meant to argue for Haudenosaunee sovereignty… just to describe what it’s like for those of us who are at least endeavoring to get our minds around it.

Sovereignty is kind of strange to contemplate anyway. No one extends this status to any group of people, although some nation-states or international organizations pretend that they do or don’t. What is clear that sovereignty, once acknowledged by a people themselves, has to be continually defended. (As Benjamin Franklin might have said to his own people, “A Republic… if you can keep it.“) I won’t go into the history of different kinds of measures the Haudenosaunee have taken to defend sovereignty over the years, except to mention some times and places that should be already known to informed Central New Yorkers — Route 81 in 1971, the Kinzua Dam, Ganienkeh, Oka, and of course the passports that are now world-famous.

To imagine a reality different than the one given in our own history books almost feels like science fiction. It’s funny, because I watch a current TV show that deals with two alternate universes that occupy the same ground — and when I think about it, it’s kind of a helpful metaphor. The two universes don’t just quietly exist separately in separate realities; they share a history. One fateful day, a door was opened between the two, and relations didn’t start off on the right foot; someone from one side stole something precious from the other side, not understanding the implications of what they were doing and the huge disruptions it would cause. On the show, the two worlds are currently readying for war on one another. But the situation is complicated. It turns out that some characters can come and go freely between worlds, and feel some degree of allegiance to both. There are also places where the boundary between universes is particularly thin because of events that happened in the past; and there, confusing things happen that defy the laws of physics. “Reality” is not an either-or thing any more, but encompasses both sets of realities.

Now that I’ve lost 9 out of the 10 people reading this far… let’s return to the real world, or at least, the slightly unreal world that is upstate New York, where real people deal with confusing issues every day. I can only say that I find it easier to explain a convoluted science-fiction TV show, than I find it to explain the twists and turns of Haudenosaunee/New York relations to someone who isn’t from around here. What is the deal with all those weird lawn signs in Cayuga County? Why is the gas at some stations in Oneida County so cheap? Strange phenomena also continue to manifest right here in Syracuse, such as wildly painted billboards along the interstate, and historical markers that are periodically blocked by posters, or disappear altogether without explanation (the corner of Erie and Oswego Boulevards being a particular nexus for such weirdness lately.)

Maybe the best way to characterize it is that we are living in a “thin spot” that defies history-book reality, even as some of us feel or insist that it does not, or should not. It seems that only one nation can occupy a space, but it also seems there might be two nations here anyway. It seems fantastical, but — depending on your vision, experience, knowledge, and perspective — it also seems as if it might be so.

The author of the 1892 U.S. Census Report, The Six Nations of New York, briefly entertained some of the same thoughts, treating the idea of “a nation within a nation” as a then-current issue to be examined rather than peremptorily swept away. It’s pretty amazing that the even the theoretical consideration of two nations in one land made it into an official U.S. document over a century ago, but even more so that the situation described by the report — “too many partial and conflicting laws are nominally in force, but without coherence and general application” — still exists. Clearly, the Haudenosaunee have been somewhat successfully asserting their sovereignty in the interim, and various other overlaid governments and municipalities have been asserting theirs right back. The author of the Census report, back in 1892, recommended “a higher and equally consistent principle of international law” as the “wholesome remedy” to any such confusion (albeit, with an eye toward making the Indian more like the white man), and were reluctant to recommend imposing U.S. citizenship in any case. Oddly enough, that’s still the issue today with those Haudenosaunee passports. (If the Haudenosaunee and other indigenous nations were recognized by the United Nations, as they have been long expecting, maybe they would have allowed to join in the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative and would have been able to more speedily update their passports to comply with these regulations.)

But here in Central New York and in other parts of the state, we are left to grapple with the implications of more than one nation. We might not just “live next to” each other; we might occupy the same place. We might be more than just neighbors; we might be enemies, or allies. We might not be the same people (and this idea may be very hard for melting-pot Americans to accept), although the same place may have a personal claim on us. (And who are “we” anyway? Who in Washington, in an age of eroding personal rights and Kelo v. New London, defends our sovereignty anyhow? Are we even considered full citizens of our own nation, or do corporations have those rights instead?)

Once you have considered and accepted an alternate view of the Six Nations’ status, you are left only with more questions. These are not new questions. A long time ago, the Dutch and the Mohawks tried to figure out what to do about them. The Mohawks came up with an agreement that is known today as the Two Row Wampum, whose concepts of how two nations ought to relate to one another became the basis for all subsequent agreements between various peoples living together in this “thin spot” known as upstate New York. Including these same British who just refused to recognize Haudenosaunee passports. (The Two Row Wampum was last used as a basis for agreement a few years ago when the Lafayette School District had to decide what to do about Onondaga students’ request to wear regalia at graduation.)

Because we live in a special place, we here in Central New York have to live and work with the fact (or contention, as others say), of another nation’s sovereign existence. So in the end, it doesn’t matter what someone in Britain, or even Washington, says about Haudenosaunee passports. Those of us here in Central New York have to chart our own course about this, by our own lights. And we have been, in ways that may seem strange to non-CNY’ers. The purple flag of the Iroquois League flies over the city square. Native students wear their regalia. Our elected representatives speak on behalf of people who will never vote for them. None of this came about because of a master political plan. It came about because we are making decisions based on our lived experiences confronting “alternate reality” every day.

To those Central New Yorkers who see it this way, it’s very confusing, and sometimes frightening, and very different. But it could be that this is the sort of difference that eventually sets people apart, and makes them a nation… however small.

One Reply to “The nations of CNY”

  1. yes. to me, it’s why harry webster ought to be known to every child in onondaga county. he had one foot in both of your realities, navigated them beautifully and sometimes painfully, and died dignity intact. he is a major american historical figure, even if no one speaks of him in history books. he is a template of possibility.

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