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Native American Communities From New York Launch Fight Against Fracking and For the Environment

Since New York was dubbed the "Empire State," Native American territory has been ransacked by ecological exploitation.

Hickory Edwards
Photo Credit: Andrew Bard Epstein


Five years ago, Hickory Edwards was called to the water. A citizen of the Onondaga Nation, whose territory just south of Syracuse is the heart of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (also known as the Six Nations or Iroquois), Edwards had never explored the rivers and streams that traverse the league's traditional homeland in upstate New York.

And then, one day, everything changed.

"I went to my cousin's house and they had just gotten a two-person kayak, so I borrowed one and went with them down the Onondaga Creek," Edwards remembered. "I knew it was an old trading route from our peoples. I got out on the water and brought my cousin along and we just headed east into the rising sun."

Nine days later, he was in Mohawk Country, 150 miles away. Sometimes alone, often with friends or family, Edwards has been making the trip ever since. "It's something I think I was put here for," he said.

In July, Edwards' annual journey will change course -- and get a lot bigger.

A Broken Promise 

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the first treaty between the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and European settlers. Consecrated with the Two Row Wampum -- a belt of purple and white beads still held by the Onondagas -- the agreement committed the parties to friendship, peace and sovereignty, each row representing the parallel paths of Indians and settlers. It was to hold force "as long as the grass is green, as long as the rivers flow downhill and as long as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west."

Successive settler governments -- first the Netherlands, followed by England, and eventually the United States -- renewed these basic principles, knowing their survival was linked to the good relations and guidance of their native neighbors. The U.S. Constitution's sixth article even enshrined such treaties as "supreme Law of the Land." In the 1790s, Congress explicitly prohibited the seizure of land without federal approval and Indian consent.

But laws made were not necessarily laws obeyed. As New York became the "Empire State," Six Nations territory was reduced by coercion, subterfuge and outright violence, their former lands ransacked by ecological exploitation. Onondaga, one of a half dozen Haudenosaunee sovereignties in upstate New York (there are more in Canada), now amounts to only 9.3 square miles.

Haudenosaunee leaders have long pushed to reverse these trends. This summer, their efforts will receive an historic boost. A yearlong educational effort to mark the four-century anniversary of the original treaty, the Two Row Wampum Renewal Campaign seeks to enact a three-part vision of "peace, friendship, and a sustainable future in parallel forever." The culmination in late July is a massive canoe trip down the Hudson River from Albany to New York Harbor. Coordinating the some 300 paddlers is Edwards, who's building a dugout canoe using the age-old methods of his ancestors.

Building a Movement

"We have the possibility to build a movement that shifts New York State's thinking," said Andy Mager, an organizer with Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation, one of the key coalition partners in the campaign.

Founded in 1999 by the Syracuse Peace Council, NOON has worked to build solidarity and understanding among the area's non-native residents, a task that became particularly vital in 2005. That year, the Onondagas filed a land rights action petitioning the federal court to declare that New York violated the law when it seized Onondaga land. They also challenged five corporations -- Honeywell International among others -- which turned Onondaga Lake, the birthplace of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, into one of the most polluted bodies of water in North America.

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