Syracuse Post Standard
Sunday, October 22, 2006
By Philip P. Arnold
It wasn't until the Onondaga Nation filed its "land rights action" in
U.S. Federal Court March 11, 2005, that I became fully aware of my living
in a toxic soup.
This action has identified over 90 Superfund sites in an area that extends
from Canada south to the Pennsylvania line; through Watertown, Syracuse
and Binghamton. The most polluted area is focused around Onondaga Lake.
Four major polluters of our area are named in this action, including
Honeywell, the corporation that just signed a deal with the state to
clean the lake.
While I am glad that there is finally movement to clean up Onondaga
Lake, I don't think the present plan expresses the best long-term values
and interests of the Central New York community.
If Al Gore, about 99 percent of environmental scientists, indigenous
people and leaders of various countries from around the world are right
- that global warming is real and the most urgent issue of our time -
then I am afraid that this fix to Onondaga Lake won't do.
In the next year, we are going to be experiencing greater violent shifts
in our weather and seasonal fluctuations are going to become much more
erratic. Like the sudden "freak" snowfall in Buffalo last week,
the weather is going to be more unpredictable. Growing seasons are going
to be more precarious, and famine in some parts of the world could be
the result. Moreover, with melting ice caps there will be less clean,
fresh water for us to drink.
The deal between Honeywell and Albany to clean up Onondaga Lake is advertised
as making it safe. Walling off the lake from the worst of the toxins,
or capping the toxins at the bottom of the lake, will keep us safe when
coming into contact with the lake. But given the changing environment,
we are going to need to be able to use the lake for food and water. The
time is coming soon when we will all need to eat the fish and drink the
water of Onondaga Lake.
Honeywell and New York state primarily see Onondaga Lake as a recreational
resource. Only the Onondaga Nation has long-term values in mind and sees
the lake as a food resource. The Longhouse values of being mindful of
the impact of actions taken today for the Seventh Generation in the future,
for example, make their view of the lake more practical.
Onondaga Lake is a sacred place for the "People of the Longhouse" (also
called the Haudenosaunee). It is where the first Tadadaho, the Peacemaker
and Hiawatha came together over 1,000 years ago to form the Great Law
of Peace - the process by which the Onondaga Nation has governed itself
continuously since that time.
Our Founding Fathers in the 18th century wrote extensively about the
Longhouse system and were influenced by it when they developed the U.S.
government. In 1987, Congress passed a resolution thanking the Haudenosaunee
for their contributions to American Democracy.
So Onondaga Lake is a sacred place in history for both the Onondaga
Nation and the United States (although this is much less well-known).
But the lake is also sacred for the Onondaga Nation because it supports
life in their territory - human life and all other life upon which human
life is contingent. Onondaga Lake is tied to their "indigenous" traditions
of understanding that the sacred is in the world, not just above it or
outside of it.
We people who are immigrants in Upstate New York, whether we have been
here for generations or since last week, need to foster a better indigenous
sense of the sacred - for practical reasons of our own survival.
Last month, Jane Goodall came to Onondaga Lake for an International
Day of Peace event called "Roots of Peacemaking: Indigenous Values,
Global Crisis." A major point of this event was that our key democratic
values of freedom and justice are directly tied to the environment. No
one is free when there is no food or water. We cannot continue to think
just in terms of short-term economic benefits - as with this present
clean-up initiative - but in terms of long-term survival. This starts
with how we regard and treat Onondaga Lake; our sacred place.