Fracking

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.

"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," Sid Hill, Tadadaho (spiritual leader) of the Onondaga Nation, said at the time. He hoped it would "hasten the process of reconciliation and bring lasting justice, peace, and respect among all who inhabit this area."

Though the Onondagas explicitly stated that a victory in court would yield no evictions, NOON recognized a need to educate the community. "We saw how much controversy had erupted in other neighboring communities when the Cayugas or the Oneidas had filed their land claims, just based out of sheer ignorance and misunderstanding," said Lindsay Speer, another NOON organizer. "I think we were actually really successful."

The courts were less open-minded. Repeatedly rejecting the Onondagas' claim, they refused even to hear the evidence. Meanwhile, in 2005, the Supreme Court ruled against the Oneidas (another member of the confederacy), relying in part on the "Doctrine of Discovery," a 15th-century papal bull granting Christian explorers the right to seize "pagan" land and incorporated into U.S. jurisprudence by John Marshall in 1823.

Many in the community began realizing the need for a broader educational effort that reached beyond central New York.

When several hundred canoes arrive at Pier 96 at 57th street on Manhattan's west side on August 9, they'll at least be difficult to ignore. "Hopefully, we'll reach enough people that when it comes down to even the basic arguments inside of someone's house, we'll have more people defending us," said Lena Duby, who's helping to coordinate on-the-ground support for the paddlers.

Protecting the Land

The campaign reaches beyond issues that affect only indigenous people. With New York Governor Andrew Cuomo expected to announce whether he'll lift the state's moratorium on natural gas drilling in the next months, organizers have made opposition to fracking a key tenet of Two Row Renewal. The Marcellus Shale runs directly under both the Haudenosaunee's traditional homeland and the Onondaga's territory.

For many, the equation is simple. "You can't live without water. Water is life," Edwards said. The highly invasive fracturing process mixes millions of gallons of freshwater with numerous (and largely undisclosed) toxic chemicals, injecting the admixture deep underground to push natural gas above. Just over the Pennsylvania border, about 80 miles to the south of Onondaga, fracking has already scarred the land.

Pointing at a soft rise at the Onondaga Nation's southern border, Edwards explained, "Our water comes right from that hill over there. That's where we drink from." Some of their neighbors have already sold rights to natural gas companies. "Everything around here will get contaminated," he added.

Jake Edwards, chief of the Onondaga Nation and Edwards' uncle, believes the Two Row Wampum offers a different path. "In order to heal the environment, as the modern world calls it, then our people need a healing also," he said at the New York City launch of the campaign in March. "Treaties should've been honored 400 years ago and carried on. Our environment wouldn't be in the bad shape it is if we paid attention to the original agreements."

With threat of catastrophic climate change looming, it's a lesson the campaign's leaders believes people are ready to hear. "Nature's going to help our message," said Oren Lyons, faithkeeper of the Onondaga's Turtle Clan and a veteran of the Red Power movement, referring to the rise in extreme weather linked with global warming. "Nobody's exempt from this." 

Andrew Bard Epstein is a graduate student in American history at Yale. He hosts the podcast series, New Books in Native American Studies. Follow him on Twitter @andeps