Category Archives: Haudenosaunee

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.

Lake stinks less

“Places consist of everything that has ever happened in them. And to feel good in those places is to feel the reality of those things.” — Adam Nicolson

Sean Kirst brings up the Onondaga Lake aroma in a blog post related to his interview of Upstate Freshwater Institute’s Steve Leffler. Being from the 690 side of the lake, I can report that the smell we got riding by was definitely not only sewage. It was a sharp, choking smell that seemed to be equal parts chemical and crap. Not quite as sulfurous as a skunk spray — and while very unpleasant, it didn’t seem noxious. In the morning, it was an excellent indicator of how hot a summer’s day was going to get. The lake always seemed to know first.

I say “was” because the lake really does stink less now. Not just physically, but morally and politically — yesterday’s announcement of a new push for local control of the lake cleanup is very welcome news, especially the detail that the Onondaga Nation gets the equal seat at the table that it deserves.

I do have to agree with Jim Walsh’s concerns about the towns around the lake — Camillus, Geddes and Salina — needing to be involved as well in some way. Some people in Camillus, who live around the portentiously named Wastebed 13, still think everything stinks. While the community outreach over the Onondaga land rights action has been heartening to see since 2005, I sometimes have felt that it has been very oriented toward the city of Syracuse and the University, with less emphasis on the other lakeside communities. In unraveling the past history of the lake’s pollution and bad/illegal deals made, we have to remember that the communities along the lake (which later became Solvay and Liverpool) were planted here before the city of Syracuse was even a mirage in the swamp. Just because they are now filled with short-sighted suburbanites of a particular political persuasion, doesn’t mean they’re not part of the puzzle.

(Yes, this post’s subject is a tribute to my all-time favorite newspaper headline, from the Post-Standard: Bills Stink Less.)

History as voodoo

Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation has started a potentially interesting new project examining some of the historical markers in Central New York. They have a Google map of markers started, and a list of good questions to ask about any markers you might encounter.

The study of history is supposed to enlarge one’s consciousness of reality, linking the past (and future) with the present. With the acquisition of more solid local knowledge, the mind’s eye can glance from 1981 to 1846 to 2072 in an instant. But in practice, creating historical memorials seems to often be more about limiting and controlling thoughts about this historical “space” we all live in.

Last week I was once again over by Cayuga Lake. Although the sour tang of the historical air there isn’t new to me, I got a fresh whiff of it when I started to notice how numerous and how well-kept the historical markers are over there. Especially as you get down near Aurora, there seems to be one on every other corner. I’ve never seen any other part of the state (except maybe in the Capital district) where they are so lovingly repainted and mowed around. People in Cayuga County want you to see their markers.

The other thing you notice is that not only are the “No Sovereign Nation – No Reservation” lawn signs as ubiquitous as ever, but they’re shiny and new. Even the well-to-do lakeside summer camp owners have them, something that always strikes me as particularly weird. The Cayugas are the only New York native nation who don’t have a reservation of their own, and they’re hardly rolling in serious dough (not like the Oneidas with Turning Stone), but I’ve always felt the palpable difference in the air when you’re in Cayuga country vs. Oneida country in terms of how disturbed the citizenry is about tax-free cigarettes and native land purchases.

The historical markers, I’m convinced, are there for the conservation of the present, not of the past. I call them “voodoo markers.” With protective magic, they glorify European and white American achievements, and help dispel the smoky miasma of the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign which hit Cayuga country especially hard. (My favorite one is the marker on Route 90 that says “INDIAN MOUNDS” but then goes on only to speak of the Jesuits.) The campaign was both a tactical military expedition and a deliberate land grab — and “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” The land is still being fought over in some vague, half-forgotten way. Therefore, the markers have to be kept legible and numerous.

But honestly I can’t be too critical of Cayuga residents, because these markers can be pretty convenient after all. For example, Fairmount doesn’t have very many old buildings left. The oldest building, the former Whelan’s Funeral Home at Fairmount Corners, was once only narrowly saved from demolition (for a gas station) in the late ’60s. (It’s up for sale again.) The property sports an older historical marker which implies that the building was the home of James Geddes. This is probably incorrect, as his house was actually across the street.

So why don’t I care a whole lot? Because in a world where old buildings get knocked down, even a misleading historical marker grants a certain enhanced value to a property. It becomes its own sort of “voodoo marker,” offering a magical, deceptive protection. And it’s a deception that I’m inclined to give tacit approval of. I suppose the same magical protections can be extended by other kinds of historical markers, such as books about historical subjects. I guess we’re all a little guilty.

Dirt Day 2010

I have just gotten around to reading Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, which is probably part of any self-respecting “doomer”‘s library, along with other books I’ve found worthwhile, such as Reinventing Collapse by Dmitry Orlov or the seminal classic The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter. Except, I’m not a doomer (and I hate that term anyway). I’m just someone interested in thinking about our times in different ways.

There doesn’t seem to be any cause for feelings of doom when you read the paper today and see that CNY’ers (the real CNY’ers) are genuinely green in their outlook and behavior. The sample for this survey is small and perhaps too much is being made of it, but it’s heartening to see CNYers understanding that “greenwashing” (cloaking corporate interests in green costume) can be a big problem too. This question makes me take the survey a little more seriously. But mainly what I see in this survey is that the less affluent a place is, the more serious-minded they may be about changing the way they live and giving back to the earth. Perhaps this is similar to the way poorer people tend to be the most generous in giving to charity.

Then again, we’re still not thinking entirely clearly. There are some “No to Wastebed 13” signs on my street now. This is because some of my former neighbors now live in Golden Meadows, the subdivision that was built near the old wastebed where Honeywell and the state propose to store Onondaga Lake sediments. I’m still trying to find out why I knew about Wastebed 13 before homeowners there apparently did. I’m not exactly an environmental activist, and I knew. I read the paper, and was following along with the lake cleanup mainly because of my concern/interest in the Onondaga LRA. I feel badly for the Golden Meadows homeowners, particularly my former neighbors, and wonder how the Onondaga Nation’s recent vision statement for Onondaga Lake speaks to them. (Are we speaking to one another?)

The anti-wastebed signs are bright yellow; you can’t miss them. Coming home from work, I noticed a little yellow flag fluttering in the grass in the yard next door to one of the signs. Someone had their lawn freshly pesticided for spring. Toxic waste is not okay for landfills and lakes, but still okay for lawns, I guess. That’s the right sort of poison for our homes and children! Until we get over this willful blindness, we’re going to keep running into dilemmas like Wastebed 13.

But back to the dirt. I thought I would be more interested by The World Without Us for its description of how suburban homes and mighty cities decay, but I actually found myself fascinated by the chapter on dirt and what sticks around in it. The story of the long-term soil experiments at an English research farm reminded me a lot of agricultural writings by and about George Geddes and Fairmount in the 19th century. I was not so interested in this stuff when I was doing the start of my Fairmount research, but now as I’m trying to ease into learning gardening, I am. What’s in my dirt?

Aspiring gardeners in Fairmount don’t know how good they have it: the provenance of their dirt is surprisingly well documented, thanks to old George. While I’m fairly sure that the land my house sits on was either not actually Geddes family land, or was not actually farmed (too many large stones present – although it could have been grazing land for his sheep), I’m confident that it probably wasn’t greatly disturbed in the early years of the 20th century either. It probably wasn’t sprayed with fertilizer. The biggest mystery therefore is how the homebuilders messed with it in the mid-1950s. My mother believes, from her childhood memories, that the homebuilders did not truck in much new dirt. I can also quiz her what the original homeowners (my grandparents) put on it in the way of pesticides and lawn fertilizer back in the beginning.

It would be nice to get soil samples tested – not, as one usually might do, to determine the best spot for gardening, but to try and find a spot that might be the least transformed from the time before the house was built. This would be in the back yard, away from the road and the house. I also want to sample the soil in the front yard (which I expect will be more contaminated) and a sample from my sister’s house in the city. I have a feeling that doing the sort of testing I’m interested in would be very expensive, though, so I’ll have to find out if it’s really feasible to do.

From Copake to Camillus, we’re all indigenous now

Last week there was a particularly disturbing news story out of the hamlet of Copake, in Columbia County east of the Hudson. A despondent dairy farmer committed suicide, shooting dead 51 of his cows before killing himself. Although the scope of this private tragedy caught the collective breath of nationwide news consumers (for an hour or two), there is of course nothing new about the desperate struggles of the family farmer, particularly dairy farmers in our own state. Northview Diary has more.

Andy Arthur (your expert blogger on the rural issues of eastern New York) has a thoughtful post up today about the physical, economic and social landscape where this sad event occurred. He points out that Copake is on the very front line between Upstate New York’s economic struggles and a rising tide of affluence coming ultimately from New York City (and Wall Street). It’s a line that used to lay much farther south. This is an on-the-ground situation which is still only abstract to us in other parts of Upstate, although became somewhat less abstract to more people during the regional anti-NYRI protests. Here’s a story about a “farm” (also in Copake, and on the same road as the farm with the 51 cows) that is not really a farm, but apparently a construction-debris dumping ground. With the advance of development-crazy newcomers, Columbia County farms are bearing some strange fruit.

Speaking of dumping — and closer to home — residents of the Town of Camillus’ Golden Meadows subdivision (a homedebtors farm?) are only just realizing how Honeywell has successfully managed to turn the Onondaga Lake sludge-dumping cleanup plan into a fait accompli. This is the same plan that the Onondaga Nation and other local activists have been vocally opposing for several years, but the residents of Golden Meadows seem not to have heard about it. I lost some nice neighbors a couple years ago to the lure of Golden Meadows, and I’m guessing they’re feeling like they’ve had the rug pulled out from under them; they probably didn’t think the waste beds would ever see use again, or were not warned. The sad thing is that if only the Nation, the local activist friends of the Nation, and the residents of the Town of Camillus had connected with each other a few years ago, they could have made a much more effective bloc to demand a better examination of the cleanup issues.

“Divide and conquer” still works, however. It works particularly well here, because some people don’t want to consider that while they may be in different boats, they are still riding down the same river. Simply put, the Camillus situation illustrates perfectly something I’ve been trying to imperfectly express for years: we here in Upstate New York are all “indigenous” now in the eyes of certain other people. We are seen as being as exploitable and disposable as the other natural resources on the land we occupy, whether it is over in Copake or over in Camillus. We’re becoming invisible. The people from the corporations, and maybe the second-home owners too (who are probably more intimately bound up with the interests of corporations than those who can’t afford second homes), tend not to consider “the locals” to be people, any more than the land speculators of the 18th and 19th centuries thought that the Haudenosaunee were people. No, they’re not evil, but they are losing their sight. All natives of this region, regardless of cultural background or skin color (but particularly those with brown skin, and also people of any color with farming or working-class backgrounds), are “removable.” How did this change in identity happen? I don’t know. But I do know that our historical ignorance and pride keeps us from acknowledging this new reality.

I’m not a second-home-owner who works for a Wall Street corporation (although I currently serve them) and I have never been able to think like they do. They see things differently. We’re not all the same people. But the even more ironic thing is that the second-home-owners are desperately seeking authenticity by (usually unconsciously) sweeping away the actual authentic culture (the indigenous peoples of all kinds, from the native nations to the farmers to the factory workers) and building artificial, pretend versions in their place. Yet their desire for cultural authenticity never seems to be sated, and they use their affluence to travel the world seeking it, creating “ideal communities” Upstate, or clearing out cities for gentrification, or buying dead factories to make shrines for art that strives to get them back in touch with the “authentic.” They’re always chasing the indigenous peoples away — but in the end, they’re always chasing after them.

What an absurd cycle. Does it have to be this way? And does there have to be conflict? The Two Row Wampum says no. It seems to me the indigenous peoples of today’s upstate regions, and the “new people” from elsewhere (I mean the affluent, not the immigrant), ought to work out a new agreement. But such an agreement won’t happen if we don’t have any good local leaders to articulate and respond to what is actually happening.