Published in the Syracuse Post-Standard March 2000
Support Native American Land Claims
When I studied American history in high school, I was fortunate that my teacher assigned the class to read "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" by Dee Brown. I was shocked by what I read.
The book describes the conquest of The American West between 1865 and 1890, providing brutal detail of massacres, expulsions, torture and terrorism. In Browns words, "during that time the culture and civilization of the American Indian was destroyed."
I wondered how such horrendous deeds could have been carried out by my country, the land that I was taught was unique in its commitment to democracy, liberty and justice. Since that time, I have learned more about the deliberate efforts to eliminate any vestiges of Native American life and belief. This legacy, and the continuing oppression of Native American people, have always caused me great pain.
While I worked for change, I never imagined that I would live in a time when we would have the opportunity to take concrete steps to redress these wrongs. Fortunately, I was incorrect.
The land claims facing New York State--the Cayuga and Oneida claims which have already been filed, as well as the soon-to-be-filed Onondaga claim--provide us non-Indian beneficiaries of the stolen land with just such an occasion. While we cant undo the awful crimes which were committed by our forebears, we can take both concrete and symbolic steps to make life different for our Haudenosaunee brothers and sisters.
Unfortunately, our non-Indian neighbors to the east and west have responded to the land claims with fear and denial. These responses are understandable. Most history taught in our schools doesnt include "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," and minimizes the European conquest of Native American nations and peoples. And, most of us would be afraid of the prospect of losing our homes and land. (At least those of us fortunate enough to own such.)
Those of us who have the good fortune of living as neighbors to the Onondaga Nation can respond much more constructively. The Onondaga Nation is perhaps the only Native American nation with an unbroken history of traditional governance. While this hasnt shielded them from the poverty and cultural erosion which have been the standard for native peoples throughout North America, it has helped them maintain a strong grounding in their traditional language, culture and spirituality, including a deep respect for Mother Earth. We have much to learn from them.
There is already evidence that our response can be different. The Syracuse Newspapers have worked diligently to educate us about the history and to present diverse voices on these issues. Few citizens or public officials have spoken with the type of hatred and barely-concealed racism which characterizes the debates in other parts of the region. We can build on this base.
I appeal to us all to learn about the history of the Onondaga people and to search our own consciences as we prepare to respond to the Onondaga land claim. We have a golden opportunity to live up to the ideals which we claim are important to us as a nation.
This will mean working cooperatively with the Onondagas to develop a creative settlement which will recognize the theft of their land and the centuries-long effort to destroy their culture. It will mean creating ways to compensate them for the loss and help them rebuild their nation. In the process we will enrich our own community and provide an example to others who struggle to overcome legacies of oppression.
Imagine our grandchildren being taught about the righteous moral stand taken by the people of Central New York when we fairly compensated the Haudenosaunee for the losses they suffered. Who says you cant re-write history.