Recently in an historic deal, the State of New York returned over 1,000 acres of ancestral land in the Tully Valley to the Onondaga Nation. This win is historic for Native rights across the country and has been praised by the Tadodaho (chief) of the Onondaga Nation, Sid Hall, who states that it is an important step “in healing between themselves and all others who live in this region which has been the homeland of the Onondaga Nation since the dawn of time.”
The shores of Onondaga Lake and the lush landscape of Upstate New York is the homeland of the Onondaga Nation, a place they’ve inhabited for thousands of years. It is in this region where the Onondaga farmed the three sisters, corn, beans, and squash; where they fished the abundant streams in the spring and summer; where they hunted deer, turkey, and rabbit in the fall and winter; and where they gathered wild onions, dandelions, and milkweed in the spring and harvested berries in the summer. It was here that the Onondaga developed their rich, deep understanding of their land and ecosystems.
The arrival of Europeans unraveled this lifestyle, starting with the Two Row Wampum Treaty, which led to a cycle of treaties and conflicts that lasted hundreds of years. The Treaty of Canandaigua in 1794 opened agreements between the Onondaga and the United States and ushered in an era of illegal “takings” that stripped the Onondaga Nation of 95% of their land.
Subsequently, over the past two-hundred years Onondaga Lake and Onondaga Creek has been pillaged and polluted until the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared both areas superfund sites in 1994.
Onondaga Lake is a place of ancestral heritage, of teaching children and grandchildren about their identity, telling culturally significant stories, and living embedded within the environment. The region of lakes and streams is a place that for centuries has lived in the hearts and minds of the Indigenous people. The healing of Onondaga Lake is the healing of the Onondaga Nation.
The Onondaga see the lake as a living relative that has not been taken care of. Settlers saw the lake as a commodity. The difference in perspective reflects why returning land to Native Nations is vital for both environmental justice and combating the climate crisis.
Lessons from Onondaga Lake
Of the polluting industries around Onondaga Lake, Honeywell Inc. lay claim to the most egregious acts. Since their founding in 1881, the technology conglomerate has pumped a slurry of toxic chemicals into the lake, including 165,000 pounds of poisonous mercury, making the lake dangerous for human subsistence and recreation. Honeywell’s environmental damages sparked the US Attorney General and the State of New York to file lawsuits to stop the company. Eventually, Honeywell agreed to clean up a section of Onondaga Lake, which includes dredging toxic waste, putting a cap over a swath of the lake-bottom, and treating water (read the full plans here). But their clean up has been just that: partial.
The Onondaga Nation has criticized the cleanup, saying the Nation was not informed during the planning process and that the plan only covers a portion of the completely contaminated lake. And Honeywell’s plan did fall short of being regenerative for the entire lake. They’ve neglected to ensure the lake will be fishable or swimmable nor is there a plan to continue the cleanup until the damage to Onondaga Lake and the Nation is undone.
In the Nation’s vision for Onondaga Lake, the environment and the people are considered together and one influences the other: people take care of the land so that the land can take care of the people. The restoration process will incorporate green infrastructure — such as vegetated roofs, rain barrels, permeable pavement, and swales — that’s informed by intimate Onondaga knowledge. The goal for the lake and surrounding ecosystems is to be safe enough to return to cultural practices and provide subsistence.
What can we learn from the historical land return to the Onondaga?
The legacy of settler-colonialism has left our ecosystems worse off than ever before. Onondaga Lake is not a stand-alone story. There are currently over 530 active Superfund sites on Native land. The unregulated process of destroying the natural world for profit has generated consequences that have created the climate crisis and will soon be felt by everyone around the world. We must actively work to reverse this damage.
Non-Natives can learn that a crucial first step is to put Native and Indigenous voices at the forefront of the decision making process. The land of the United States is not a commodity, but rather a place with a living history and thousands of years of symbiotic relationships between humanity and nature. Listening to Native American knowledge and perspectives is necessary towards healing the intergenerational damage that has been done by hundreds of years of marginalization and a productive path forward to climate action and climate justice.
Similar to Onondaga Lake for the Onondaga Nation, the ancestral homelands of Native Nations across the country are deeply connected to personal identity and culture. This connection highlights the crucial intersection between environmental justice and combating climate change, and what must be at the forefront of our minds going forward.
We celebrate wins like this, but more must be done. You can get involved with other land back and cleanup efforts in your local area:
Map of Superfund sites located on/near Native Land in the United States
EPA Resources on Tribal Lands Cleanup Programs
Land Back and Indigenous Solidarity Starting Toolkit