Syracuse Post Standard
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.