By Amaris Elliott-Engel / The Citizen
UNION SPRINGS – A peach sapling in a wheelbarrow was rolled to the end of an outdoor stage at the Cayuga Indian Nation’s organic farm.
Bernadette “Birdie” Hill, the Cayuga’s Heron Clan mother, teared up at the gift meant to help replace a peach orchard of 1,500 trees destroyed during the April-to-October 1779 Sullivan-Clinton Campaign. American revolutionaries followed orders to drive out the Haudenosaunee/Iroquois tribes from contemporary New York after some of them allied with the British.
It was the fifth replacement tree given to the traditional Cayugas by the Strengthening Haudenosaunee American Relations through Education (SHARE) community group. SHARE purchased the 70-acre Truesdale Road farm in April 2001 and have worked with the Cayugas on it before and after selling it to them Dec. 22.
Saturday was the first picnic in what the Cayugas hope will be an annual affair open to all, including their non-native neighbors, all of the Cayugas (who are experiencing a leadership dispute) and other Haudenosaunee nations.
The goal was to foster understanding of the Cayugas’ plans for the organic farm and for the larger community to get to know them, said Hill and the Cayugas’ two chiefs, Sam George, a Bear Clan member, and William “Chuck” Jacobs, a Heron Clan member.
“People fear the unknown,” Hill said. “But we wanted to show that when we do a social, we laugh and we dance. Our creator likes to see us dancing and laugh. It’s a form of thanksgiving for us to show we have a mother earth to dance upon.”
Dozens attended despite an unseasonably cold day, including members of the Onondaga, Mohawk and Seneca nations, several members of SHARE and all the Cayuga council members.
A blues-style band from the Onondaga Territory, Corn Bread, played earlier in the afternoon, followed later by a white folk trio and social dancing.
At the beginning of the gathering, Alan George gave the Cayuga traditional thanks for the life-supporting aspects of creation: thanking the four messengers for bringing the grass, the trees, “the wind that carries our thoughts and prayers to the creator.”
The Cayugas have remained without official territory since the 1700s, scattered to other Iroquois territories, to Canada and to Oklahoma. Only one traditional Cayuga currently lives at the farm in a caretaker role, but they hope the farm will become a cultural and religious base for all Cayugas.
The U.S Supreme Court decision last month to not hear the tribe’s appeal of its dismissed land claim was not surprising, Hill said, but it also does not undo the tribe’s treaty rights guaranteeing it a 64,000-reservation cupping Cayuga Lake.
Meanwhile, the Cayugas still have the caretaking responsibility to stop pollution and ensure clean water, clean air and food without chemicals, Hill said.
The traditional Cayugas hope to build a ceremonial longhouse, which Alan George said is equivalent to a “cathedral” for the Cayugas. Medicinal and cooking herbs, along with berries, tobacco and sweet grass are being raised at the farm. One herbal bed is in the shape of a turtle, a key figure in the Haudenosaunee creation story.
Ithaca College Anthropology professor Jack Rossen and his students continue archaeological work.
The traditional Cayugas also will continue to seek for their traditional council with chiefs, subchiefs, clan mothers and other participants called seatwarmers to be recognized as the tribe’s official leadership by the federal government.
One Cayuga member, Clint Halftown, has applied for all of the tribe’s land holdings, besides the organic farm, to be taken into trust. He has represented the tribe in some federal matters since the death of then-chief Vernon Issacs in 2003.
George and Jacobs were condoled in April 2005, the first chiefs to be condoled since the death of then-chief Vernon Issacs in 2003.
Sam George said the tribe will leave a paper trail so it will be clear to future generations the traditional Cayugas have sought to have the tribe governed under their authority.
The traditional part of the tribe finds the “mind-changers” of gambling, alcohol and other drugs unacceptable, George said, so the tribe’s economic future enterprises will not involve any of that as far as this part of the nation is concerned.
Every decision the tribe makes is looking forward seven generations, he said.