The Iroquois Are Not Giving Up

Confronted with a string of unfavorable court rulings, the Confederacy staged a 13-day demonstration to kickstart a social movement.
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Melissa Taub

The history of Native Americans is still alive and ongoing, and the Iroquois Confederacy, or Haudenosaunee, wants you to remember that. On Friday, August 9 th, their chiefs met with the Dutch Consul General on the 57th Street Pier in Manhattan to honor the 400th Anniversary of their 1613 treaty with the Kingdom of the Netherlands. It was the culmination of a thirteen-day paddle down the Hudson River, with daily stops where tribe members and supporters held cultural events and lectures, and invited locals to listen to traditional music and dance. The goal: not just to raise consciousness over land rights--suits for which have been uniformly unsuccessful in recent years--but to build support for enforcing treaties between natives and settlers for the purposes of environmental conservation, as well.

"It brings to the public's attention that we have operated on a nation-to-nation level with our European brothers and sisters for four hundred years," said Tonya Gonella Frichner, founder of the American Indian Law Alliance. "It's about extending a hand of friendship to the Netherlands, to all of the member nations of the UN, and to our neighbors."

The Iroquois Confederacy comprises six nations: the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Tuscarora, and Seneca, whose historical territory is Upstate New York.

In 2005, the Onondaga filed a lawsuit against New York State, the city of Syracuse, Onondaga County, and five corporations, claiming that the state had illegally seized the tribe's land and that the corporations had been destroying the environment in the area. At the time, The New York Times reported that the tribe was using the land claim as leverage to force environmental cleanup--they had no intention of taking back the land by evicting people currently living on it. Rather, one of the key issues was that the company Honeywell International, among others, had for decades been dumping chemical waste into Onondaga Lake, a sacred site. The lake, an EPA superfund site, is now one of the most polluted in the country, and has a thick layer of mercury at its bottom.

The courts have categorically dismissed the cases and subsequent appeals. Part of the problem with the land rights struggle is the Doctrine of Discovery, which states that European explorers and settlers have superior rights to the land. This doctrine flows from a decree by Pope Nicholas in 1452 to allow the subjugation of "heathen" lands in Africa and the New World. It was adopted by American law in 1823 in the Supreme Court case Johnson vs. McIntosh, and never overturned. Recently, it was used in 2005 as part of a court decision to dismiss an Oneida land case.

"We've just about exhausted our avenues in the U.S. courts," said Todadaho Sid Hill, the spiritual leader of the Iroquois. "We have one more appeal, which is going to be denied, and then we go to the world courts." The language used in publicity materials has been resolute: "The Onondaga will not settle for other methods such as casinos that have been used to resolve other Native American claims," the Onondaga Nation's website still reads.

To an outsider, the fight might look futile. When the chiefs and most of the Iroquois were asked what keeps them fighting for their people in the face of so few victories, they responded: 'the children.' "I'm concerned for the seventh generation coming," said Faithkeeper and Onondaga Chief Oren Lyons. In Iroquois culture every chief is expected to take into account seven generations forward with every decision he makes. "That's why we're still here," said Tia Oros Peters, Executive Director of the Seventh Generation Fund. "If someone hadn't put out prayers for me five hundred years ago, I wouldn't be talking to you today."

"After a judge in Albany dismissed the last case in 2010, we started to ask ourselves: well, what are we going to do now?" said Andy Mager, one of the founders of Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation, who was helping support the legal battle through public outreach. "Joe Heath, the lead attorney for the Onondaga, then said: 'Maybe what we need is a land rights movement, not a land rights action.' And that got us thinking."

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Melissa Taub

On the final day of the demonstration, the pier was mobbed with people waiting to greet the paddlers. There were hundreds of Iroquois; Quakers who have been lobbying the Senate for indigenous rights; Algonquian who had also made treaties with the Dutch; a Buddhist monk who led a group that walked on the shore alongside the rowers; and media, environmentalists,NGO groups, and curious New Yorkers. Additionally. The Unity Riders, a contingent from the Dakota Nation, who traveled from Manitoba to NYC, saddled up and mounted their horses by the pier to ride them on the march to the UN.

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"Without the help of the Iroquois, the Dutch settlers would have never survived here," said Dutch Consul General Rob de Vos, who, with Dan Maffei, Congressman for the Syracuse region, met the paddlers and the nations' chiefs on the pier. "Let's stay together, listen to each other, and find solutions for future generations." Each side held one end of the Two Row Wampum belt, signifying the treaty between the Iroquois and the Dutch, and having exchanged gifts, the chiefs then smoked a peace pipe with de Vos.

Hickory Edwards, the leader of the paddlers, brought out a jug of water that he had collected from a stream near Onondaga. "This clean, clear water, it's life," he said. "It's a shame that we have to fight the government to protect the environment, but if that's what we have to do, that's what we will do!"

The paddlers and their allies, singing songs, beating drums, and carrying flags of the Two Row, then marched to the UN for an event titled Indigenous Peoples Building Alliances: Honouring Treaties, Agreements and other Constructive Arrangements, intended to open up dialogue for the resolution of treaty disputes between natives and settlers throughout the world.

The UN conference room filled with people from member states and indigenous delegates. It opened with a Mohawk traditional greeting and introductions from UN chairmen, including Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon. The panelists revealed that the Two Row Wampum Campaign was the inspiration for the theme of the conference.

When the Iroquois spoke, one of the women from the paddling trip got up and handed the flag to the UN to archive. As she did that, someone from the back shouted "Fly it out front!" The crowd cheered. Another audience member asked the panelists for the chance for indigenous nations to become full member states. "We're still on the outside looking in," he said.

Two days before, High Commissioner of Human Rights, Ravi Pillay, had encouraged member states to respect treaties with indigenous peoples. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, James Anaya, made a similar statement, saying that: "Broken treaties must become a thing of the past." The Netherlands is commemorating the Declaration of Rights for Indigenous Peoples on September 13th and is planning to dedicate the event to the Two Row Wampum and working to invite Iroquois representatives. Additionally, Consul General de Vos stated that he plans to visit the Onondaga Nation, although no date has been set yet.

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The Two Row Wampum belt (Melissa Taub)

"We've worked hard to get here," said Lyons. "It still is a work in progress. But in spite of everything, the Two Row still prevails. Our allies, our friends, our brothers from across the sea, are here."

And if the nation won their land rights claim? "What that would look like is pretty much what it is now: people living side by side with our neighbors," Frichner explained. She noted that Syracuse sits on Onondaga land and that New York State pays for the right to use the land. "This relationship is still in place."

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Julian Taub is a writer living in New York City.

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