Connecting the Dots: The Onondaga Nation Land Rights Action Goes International

From the April 2014 PNL #833

by Jeanne Shenandoah, Onondaga Nation

“All men are born free and equal, in dignity and in rights, and, being endowed by nature with reason and conscience, they should conduct themselves as brothers one to another.”
- From the Preamble to the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, adopted in 1948 by the Ninth International Conference of American States in Bogotá, Colombia; the same meeting adopted the Charter of the Organization of American States and thereby created the Organization of American States.

In “Reasserting Sovereignty: Onondaga Lake” (Peace Newsletter #832, March 2014), Joe Heath, the General Counsel for the Onondaga Nation, explained the reasoning behind the Onondaga Nation’s 2005 filing of its Land Rights Action in Federal District Court. In 2013 the case finally reached the US Supreme Court, which refused to hear it, thereby leaving the Onondaga Nation without a remedy for the wrongful taking of their land. In this article, I want to share more about the Nation’s connection to the lands that are its home, particularly Onondaga Lake and Onondaga Creek, to help deepen understanding as the Land Rights Action moves into the international arena.

The Onondagas were among the first
in NYS to be aware of the dangers of
hydrofracking. Tadodaho’ Sid Hill
spoke at an Albany rally in 2011.
Photo: NOON Archives.

The Land Rights Action


The Onondaga Nation continues to believe that there needs to be a healing with respect to New York State’s wrongful taking of the Onondaga Nation’s land. In April, 2014, the Nation will bring the Land Rights Action to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which is part of the Organization of American States. This Commission has demonstrated, through rulings in other cases, a profound respect for the rights of indigenous peoples, demonstrated in part by its reliance on and respect for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Throughout the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, the fundamental rights associated with land are explicitly and implicitly protected. Article 32 speaks directly to the prevention of environmental degradation. It provides that “indigenous people have the right to determine and develop priorities and strategies for the development or use of their lands or territories or other resources,” that States shall consult and obtain free and informed full consent from indigenous people through their own governments “prior to any activity affecting their lands or territories, particularly in connection with the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources.” Significantly, the article concludes: “States shall provide mechanisms for just and fair redress for any such activities, and appropriate measures shall be taken to mitigate adverse environmental, economic, social, cultural or spiritual impact.” It is this just and fair redress that the Onondaga Nation seeks in bringing its Land Rights Action into the international arena.

The Creek and the Lake

It is difficult to put into English words our Nation’s and our people’s deep and fundamental cultural, historical and spiritual connection to Onondaga Creek and Onondaga Lake. Onondaga Creek flows through the center of both our currently recognized territory and our much larger aboriginal territory. We believe that the Creek is a living spirit which has provided life and sustenance to our people for all the centuries that we have lived in what is now called Central New York.
The Creator has given us a great duty to take care of, or be stewards of, Mother Earth and the air, water and all plants and animals. It is the knowledge of our people that all living things have a spirit. It saddens us greatly that the Creek, the Lake, and all the fish, plants and animals that depend on these waters are being harmed and destroyed.
In our culture, we are taught to give thanks daily to the Creator for all forms of plants and animals; we do not consider that humans have superior rights to these other life forms. We are taught that we must all share the gifts of the Creator. One of the responsibilities of our leaders is to preserve the natural world for those yet to be born.


Historically, it is important to remember that the Onondaga Nation’s aboriginal territory, which we enjoyed up until the invasion of the Europeans about 400 years ago, was an area of land approximately 40 to 50 miles wide that began on the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario in the North, and ran down well into Pennsylvania to the south.  Our aboriginal territory was bordered on the east by the territory of the Oneida Nation and on the west by the territory of the Cayuga Nation. Before the Europeans, our people had access to many lakes, rivers, streams and ponds for fishing and gathering. Fish from all of these waters were one of the main sources of our food and sustenance. Additionally, our culture relied heavily on plants and other wildlife from these water sources.
After the illegal activities of New York State in the late 1700s and early 1800s, taking our land in violation of federal law and treaties, our territory was drastically reduced from this large aboriginal area to its currently limited size. During this same period, the majority of our people were either killed or driven out of our territory to try to live elsewhere.
The negative impacts of these land thefts were extreme on the Onondaga people and on our culture. One of these negative impacts was to dramatically reduce our access to water to that limited portion of Onondaga Creek that runs through our currently recognized territory. Therefore our ability to supply our people with the important food source of fish and other water-based wildlife has been drastically reduced. As a result, our people’s health has suffered immeasurably.
Further, the lack of access to water-based plants and other water-related wildlife has had an extremely negative impact on our people and our ability to maintain our traditional culture. One example of this is that several of our clans, such as the turtle clan, the eel clan, and the heron clan, are named after our water-based brethren. Even today, fish, eels, crabs (crayfish) and clear water are still key components to some of our ceremonies. A key activity connected to the need for clean water is a ceremony where participants dance in the Creek and use fish and eels from the Creek as part of the ceremony.


Because of our traditional mandate to preserve the natural world for our future generations, our Nation and its Chiefs, Faithkeepers and Clan Mothers are dedicated to restoring Onondaga Lake and Onondaga Creek to the pristine condition we enjoyed for centuries before the arrival of the Europeans. We believe that such restoration will provide and promote a healing, not only for our people and our culture, but also for all people who live in this area.  
We are very grateful to those who have supported the Onondaga Nation in so many ways over the years. Going forward, it is clear that support from our neighbors will be critical to the success of our Land Rights Action. While the international forums in which the Onondaga Nation will seek justice have moral authority, they have limited ability to compel the United States or New York State to redress the harm that the Onondaga Nation has suffered to its lands and waters. We call on you, our neighbors, to support the Nation by calling for clean water, clean soil, clean air, for all of our children and grandchildren.

Note: Portions of this article appeared in slightly different form as Appendix 2 to the Partnership for Onondaga Creek’s Title VI Petition to the US Environmental Protection Agency, 2004.