4.9 Brightening the Covenant Chain: The Onondaga Land Rights Action and Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation

Jack Manno,499 Chief Irving Powless Jr. (Chawhdayguywhawdoes)500


In 2005 The Onondaga Nation, one of the six nations of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy, filed a lawsuit in U.S. federal court alleging that New York State violated federal law when it attempted to take title to the aboriginal homeland of the Onondaga people who had never legally ceded it. The Onondaga have used their land rights action to focus attention on cases of environmental destruction throughout the disputed territory and have reached out to assure the local community that they do not plan to dispossess anyone of their property. A local organization, the Neighbors of Onondaga Nation (NOON) formed several years earlier to support the Onondaga Nation, began supporting their legal action and educating the local community concerning the history and culture of the indigenous people of central New York. NOON sponsored several educational events, including a year-long educational series. This case study examines the Haudenosaunee's foundational event and its ‘constitution’, the Great Law of Peace. The Iroquois Confederacy was established in ceremonies on the shore of Onondaga Lake, now one of the most chemically contaminated water bodies in North America. The Onondaga land rights action has linked the healing of the environment with the healing of the relationship between the peoples that share the Onondaga's aboriginal homeland. This has made it possible, through the educational series, ‘Onondaga Land Rights and Our Common Future’, to examine the Great Law of peace as a model for governance for sustainability. This case study also discusses how Haudenosaunee tradition and worldview may have influenced progressive social movements in central New York state, especially the nineteenth century movements for the abolition of slavery and for women's rights and how it is again influencing how people of central New York imagine the possibilities for peace and social justice. The metaphor used to describe the peace treaties between the Haudenosaunee and their neighbors throughout history is the ‘Silver Covenant Chain’, a covenant of friendship, mutual assistance, and respect. Occasionally, throughout history, the silver needs to be polished and brightened. The Onondaga see the land rights action as an invitation to renew the covenant between our peoples.

4.9.1 Introduction

In the heartland of what is now New York State a remarkable collaboration has been underway between Native Americans of the Onondaga Nation and NOON (Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation) a group of local citizens organized as Onondaga allies and affiliated with the Syracuse Peace Council, a local peace and social justice organization. In 2005 the Onondaga Nation filed a legal complaint in U.S. federal court asking the court to rule that New York State violated federal law in a series of land deals commencing in the late eighteenth century thus those transactions are void and title to the land rightfully belongs to the Onondaga Nation. The lawsuit names not only the State of New York but also several large chemical, mining, and energy corporations that the Onondaga hold responsible for the degradation and chemical contamination of the land and waters in the aboriginal territory. In presenting the case to the court and to the people of central New York, the Nation and its lawyers have expressed their intentions to begin a healing of the ancestral land and waters and of the relationships between all the people who now share this place. The Onondaga Nation has especially reached out to local communities throughout the region that have been affected by pollution and destruction of natural resources. The Nation assured the community that although it is asking that aboriginal title to the land in question be acknowledged, it is not seeking to repossess land that others presently occupy. ‘We know what it is like to be evicted’, Sid Hill, the Tadodaho or spiritual leader of the Onondaga and a spokesman of the Haudenosaunee (‘People of the Longhouse’), said in reassuring the local community. In words unusual for a legal complaint, the Onondaga land rights action begins, ‘The Onondaga People wish to bring about a healing between themselves and all others who live in this region that has been the homeland of the Onondaga Nation since the dawn of time. The Nation and its people have a unique spiritual, cultural, and historic relationship with the land, which is embodied in, the Great Law of Peace (Gayanashagowa). This relationship goes far beyond federal and state legal concepts of ownership, possession or legal rights. The people are one with the land, and consider themselves stewards of it. 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. The Onondaga Nation brings this action on behalf of its people in the hope that it may hasten the process of reconciliation and bring lasting justice, peace, and respect among all who inhabit the area’.501

The Onondagega, the ‘People of the Hills’ have lived in the region south and east of Lake Ontario, in the high hills and wide valleys carved by the advancing and retreating glaciers, since, as it is expressed, ‘the dawn of time’. Many still live on a fragment of the aboriginal homeland whose sovereignty is today mostly, if at times tenuously, recognized and honored by local, state, and federal officials. They continue to maintain traditions, stories, ecological perspectives, and the traditional form of governance. Onondaga chiefs and clan mothers have often spoken on behalf of indigenous people globally and frequently warned the world about the threat of accelerating global ecological change and what it means to people whose culture is tightly bound to the ecology of their homelands. The Onondaga are referred to as the ‘fire keepers’. Their territory lies in the middle of Haudenosaunee country, which is thought of as a large longhouse, a home in which the nations live together as family and the Onondaga tend the central fire, the symbol of governance. Thus it is to Onondaga that the leaders of the other nations come to meet in the Grand Council ( legislature). To the east of the Onondaga land are the Oneida and Mohawk Nations, to the west, the Cayuga and Seneca (the Tuscarora, removed from the their homeland in North Carolina in the eighteenth century sought refuge with the Haudenosaunee and were welcomed as the sixth nation). The six nations comprise the Haudenosaunee known mostly to non-natives by the name given them by the French, the Iroquois Confederacy.

Oral tradition tells of the arrival of a messenger, a Huron man known as the Peacemaker whose message was eventually taken up by the leaders of the five original nations and ended a long period of violence and strife among the nations. The Peacemaker brought the leaders of the nations together on the shores of Onondaga Lake nearly a thousand years ago and established perhaps the world's first participatory democracy, with a delicate balance of responsibilities among branches of government and between women and men. The Great Law of Peace serves as the Constitution that sets forth guidance for governing, establishes the rights and responsibilities of individuals, nations, and clans and sets rules for emigration, adoption into the community or nation, the role of spiritual leaders, and the powerful role of women who had the responsibility to nominate, hold in office, and, if necessary, remove the chiefs. Under the Law, ‘every human being who is a member of a family, clan, and nation has certain responsibilities and rights. Everyone has a responsibility to help protect and to preserve the Earth, our Mother, for the benefit of her children seven generations to come. Everyone has the right to come and to go, free to live in harmony with the laws of nature, free to enjoy liberty, to live in a natural way, as long as one continues to give thanks for all land and life’.502 The tragic irony is that in the twentieth century Onondaga Lake became one of if not the most chemically polluted lakes in North America. Near the lake and in the Tully Valley to the south several salt springs were an economical source of salt for the new United States, especially after the building of the Erie Canal. Wealth from salt built the city of Syracuse. It also became a source of a number of industrial processes whose wastes were dumped into the small lake (4.6 square miles) already reeling from the wastewater of the burgeoning city. Between 1956 and 1970 Allied Chemical Corporation dumped an estimated 165,000 pounds of mercury into the lake. Today the entire bottom is designated a hazardous waste site under U.S. Superfund laws. While a great deal of work is underway by the responsible parties to clean up the lake, the Onondaga consider the plan inadequate and insist that, as the stewards of the lake, they must have a meaningful say in decisions about clean-up.

The Onondaga Nation produced a video to present the land rights case to the public titled Brighten the Chain (available at www.onondaganation.org/). It referred to a series of Covenant Chain Treaties, the first between the Dutch settlers and the Haudenosaunee in the early 1500s. This treaty set out the relationship between the two societies as one of friendship, respect, and mutual assistance. It was envisioned as a chain made of silver because silver maintains its strength. But it could and would be tarnished and on occasion would need to be taken out and polished and brightened. The Onondaga see the land rights action as part of this brightening process.

In the official website of the Haudenosaunee, the values derived from the Great Law are described as:

Many people involved in NOON admire these values and appreciate the culture and community that considers them foundational. One aspect of Haudenosaunee culture that had a profound impact on NOON and many others is the requirement that every ceremony or meeting begins and ends with the Thanksgiving Address. Each part of the community of life is acknowledged and appreciated for carrying out its duties and following its ‘original instructions from the Creator’. The address begins by thanking the people who have come together. We are reminded of our duty to live in balance and harmony with nature. The Earth is greeted and thanked for the way she provides for us. The waters, the fish, the wild and domesticated plants, and the medicinal herbs are all noted and offered thanks. The animals, the trees, and birds follow. The winds of the four directions, the thunders, the sun and moon, the stars, the great teachers and leaders who continue to guide the people, and finally the Creator are thanked. After each acknowledgement the speaker asks the people gathered to bring their minds together as one to give greetings and thanks. Before closing, the speaker apologizes for leaving anything out and asks the listeners to add whatever may have been forgotten and then encourages each individual to send such greetings and thanks in his or her own way. To take the time in this way before and after each meeting effectively reminds everyone of our essential dependence on and deep connection with the entire community of life, and it expresses a belief that all beings, including humans, have their duties under natural law. Our duty is to pay attention to the detailed workings of the life processes around us and to give thanks, a task that pleases the Creator and keeps the people healthy and humble.

The Thanksgiving Address, like so much else in Haudenosaunee culture, has its origins in the Great Law of Peace. When the leaders of the five nations gathered with the Peacemaker, they buried their weapons of war in a hole dug beneath a tall white pine tree near the shore. From there a powerful stream washed them away. The roots of the Tree of Peace spread out in the four directions throughout the world, holding out a promise that any and all nations could follow those roots and decide to live beneath the shade of the Tree of Peace and eventually join the Haudenosaunee Confederacy or perhaps another version of a United Nations. The Great Law of Peace conceivably presents a model of global governance based on human rights, thanksgiving, and responsibility for the Earth and future generations. The story of the Onondaga Nation's decision to frame their land rights action in the context of the Great Law and NOON's decision to back them and to educate the public about the Onondaga's land rights action, is particularly pertinent for this project.

4.9.2 Description

NOON has been involved in many educational and support activities including maintaining an information booth at local community events, often several in a single week; writing educational pieces on Onondaga history and culture, maintaining a website (www.peacecouncil.net/NOON) and advocating for the Onondaga land rights action. At many events, NOON asks people to sign a statement of support for the Onondaga land rights action that reads:

As residents of New York State we support the land rights action filed by the Onondaga Nation against the State of New York on March 11, 2005.

In this case study we focus on a year long education series at a major local theater titled ‘Onondaga Land Rights and Our Common Future’ co-sponsored by NOON, Syracuse University, the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY ESF), and several other local organisations. The series provided an open public accounting of New York history, examined the specifics of the legal case, and introduced non-natives to the region's rich and active indigenous culture. More than 20 community organizations and university departments contributed to the series. Each event attracted hundreds of native and non-native students, activists, community leaders, and professors, and became a scene of cross-cultural reconciliation that covered extensively by the media. The series also included a day-long teach-in involving nearly 1,000 students and community members and ended with a celebration in which hundreds of Native and non-Native students, faculty, and community members learned Haudenosaunee social dances, snaking their way in intricate patterns around the Syracuse University gymnasium to the songs and drums of the Onondaga Nation Singers. Many of the events paired Native and non-Native speakers in conversation on stage followed by audience questions and discussion.

Among the highlights were:

There were many other events.

DVD's are available at www.peacecouncil.net/NOON/commonfuture/dvd.html

4.9.3 Evaluation

The common theme and outcome of the educational series was an understanding that the system of governance embodied in the Great Law of Peace and the culture and lives of the Onondaga People have had a profound impact on our region even if that impact has seldom been acknowledged. The Onondaga land rights action has created an opportunity to brighten the Covenant Chain of friendship between the Onondaga and its neighbors. Many ideas and new programs have flourished following the series.

As of this writing, the Onondaga land rights action remains in federal court awaiting action. The State of New York asked the judge to dismiss the case on the grounds that 1) it will be disruptive to the local community and, 2) the Onondaga have waited too long to challenge the actions of the state. The efforts of NOON have shown that the case has been anything but disruptive. It has been, as it was intended to be, tremendously healing. It has been, in essence, a kind of truth and reconciliation commission, with a focus on how to shape the future to reflect the values and perhaps even the governance of the Great Law of Peace. The state’s second assertion, that the Onondagas waited too long to go to court is wrong on several counts. First, Indian nations were only allowed to file land claims in U.S. federal court beginning in the 1970s. And the evidence filed in court briefs by several historians demonstrate that the Onondaga frequently sought redress over the past two centuries by doing what the treaties required – taking their concerns directly to Washington, nation to nation, rather than entering an alien court system. How the judge views these arguments remains to be seen.

4.9.4 Conclusion

It has long been acknowledged that central New York has long been unusually active in producing and sustaining social change and reform movements, especially in the ninteenth century. Anti-slavery, women’s rights, and religious freedom movements all flourished in this area. Their leaders included Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frederick Douglas, Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, William Henry Seward, Matilda Joslyn Gage and others. There is a growing and fascinating body of evidence that widespread and daily encounters between Haudenosaunee people and the surrounding community must have given early Americans pause to think about their own cultural practices. The Haudenosaunee world, as troubled as it was in the century following the devastating Sullivan-Clinton campaign to destroy it ( sullivanclinton.com/), was still a community where women had authority and dignity, dressed in comfortable, loose clothing (during the era of corsets for white women), acknowledged the Earth as Mother, and made decisions based on consensus. This must have suggested the idea that bondage and legal disempowerment need not be inevitable. It suggested that another world was possible.504 As we face the threat of multiple environmental catastrophes and as we imagine new forms of governance, the Onondaga land rights action and the response of Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation suggests that the Great Law of Peace might indeed serve as a model of governance for sustainability. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and other eighteenth century leaders of the movement for American independence from the British empire, were familiar with Haudenosaunee governance. They considered the advice of Iroquois leaders and may have adopted some of the ideas of the Great Law of Peace into the early drafts of what would become the U.S. Constitution.505 As we grow closer to the need for a new Constitution for global governance, the roots of the white pine on Onondaga Lake are reaching out to the corners of the world, offering a route home to one of world’s first democracies. If and when the American founders were influenced by the Great Law of Peace, they left out essential components, most especially the requirements to build into laws and decisions a perspective of gratitude to the entire community of life and a responsibility to protect it for the benefit of the children seven generations to come.


Haudenosaunee Environmental Task Force Haudenosaunee Environmental Restoration: An Indigenous Strategy for Human Sustainability Occasional Paper # 1, (Indigenous Development International, Cambridge, 1995).

Johansen, Bruce E. Debating Democracy: Native American Legacy of Freedom.: (Clear Light Publishers, Santa Fe, 1998).

Swamp, Chief Jake and Schaaf, Gregory The U.S. Constitution and the Great Law of Peace (CIAC Press, Santa Fe NM, 2004).

Onondaga Nation (2005), Onondaga Nation vs. State of New York, Civil Action 05-CV-314 (LEK/DRH), available at: www.onondaganation.org/land/briefs.html

Roesch Wagner, Sally Sisters in Spirit: The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Influence on Woman’s Rights (Native Voices Press,Summertown, TN, 2001).

499 Associate Professor, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, 211 Marshall Hall, SUNY ESF, Syracuse, NY 13210, USA, Email: jpmanno@esf.edu. Jack has been the chair of an environmental task force that serves the Chiefs and Clanmothers of the Onondaga Nation, a member of the Board of the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry Center for Native Peoples and the Environment (www.esf.edu/nativepeoples/), President of the Board of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation (www.matildajoslyngage.org/) and a member of Neighbors of Onondaga Nation and a participant in the Global Ecological Integrity Group (www.globalecointegrity.net/).

500 A leader Dayhawtgawdoes of the Beaver Clan of the Onondaga Nation for more than 40 years. He is a teacher, frequently speaking at colleges and universities and public events raising awareness about the history of the treaties between Native Nations and the U.S. government and their associated rights and responsibilities. He has been instrumental in obtaining the return of wampum belts and other historic and sacred objects. His writing has appeared in the University of Buffalo Law Review and New York Folklore and in Jemison, G. Peter and Schein, Anna M., Treaty of Canadaigua: 200 Years of Treaty Relations between the Iroquois Confederacy and the United States, (Clear Light, Santa Fe,2000).

501 Onondaga Nation (2005), Onondaga Nation vs. State of New York, Civil Action 05-CV-314 (LEK/DRH), available at: www.onondaganation.org/land/briefs.html

502 Swamp, Chief Jake and Schaaf, G. The U.S. Constitution and the Great Law of Peace (CIAC Press: Santa Fe NM, 2004) p. 66.

503 Haudenosaunee Environmental Task Force Haudenosaunee Environmental Restoration: An Indigenous Strategy for Human Sustainability Occasional Paper # 1, (Indigenous Development International: Cambridge, 1995).

504 Roesch Wagner, S.y Sisters in Spirit: The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Influence on Woman’s Rights (Native Voices Press: Summertown, TN, 2001).

505 Johansen, B. E. Debating Democracy: Native American Legacy of Freedom (Clear Light Publishers: Santa Fe NM, 1998). Swamp, Chief Jake and Schaaf, G. The U.S. Constitution and the Great Law of Peace (CIAC Press: Santa Fe NM, 2004).

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