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The Onondaga Nation: Embodiment of the intersection between social and environmental issues

By Sustainability Office on February 22, 2016

By Sale Rhodes ’16 (Environmental Studies and Biology Major from Seattle, WA)

onondaga nation mapThe Onondaga Nation has inhabited and presided over Central New York for hundreds of years. Located just southwest of Syracuse, the Nation is located nearby to Colgate and is renowned for their non-stop fight for not only their own land rights, but also for the natural environment. Through remediation and preservation efforts, this community has set precedence for simultaneously standing up to social adversity while promoting conservation and stewardship over the environment.

Subject to unfair and unlawful action over the past 500 years, the Onondaga Nation has experienced turbulent relations with European and American governments; exemplified by land exchange, taxation, and frequent arson events. Land rights lawsuits, immigration and travel documentation disputes, and human rights violations occur regularly while the Nation’s remarkable prioritization of the environment endures, “It is the duty of the Nation’s leaders to work for a healing of this land, to protect it, and to pass it on to future generations.”

Onondaga Lake, just east of Syracuse, was the original source of life for the people of the Onondaga Nation, supplying water and nutrition while embodying spiritual significance to the community. As a result of development, the Lake has undergone excessive pollution from local industry and the municipality. Fresh water brine harvesting in both the Onondaga Lake and Creek has caused mud slides and contamination. The Nation holds the lake dearly and has worked tirelessly on the restoration and preservation of it, especially as companies responsible for the pollution have failed to address and correct the source of the problems. Placing the icing on the cake of Onondaga Lake’s detrimental pollution is the sewage treatment plant of Onondaga County that flows right into the lake. The toxins, mercury, and algal blooms within the lake make it dangerous for not only humans, but local biodiversity, particularly marine species, as well. Revered primate biologist Jane Goodall offered recognition and solidarity to the Onondaga Nation’s efforts to recondition the lake in 2006.

Meanwhile, pieces of the Nation’s land have been taken from them as recently as 2014, thrusting the Onondaga people into lawsuits and protests over possession of their own land. The Onondaga Nation has occupied the Central New York area southwest of Syracuse since the twelfth century, if not earlier, and represents admirable dedication to the environment and social justice, making the interconnectedness of these causes clear. Collective voices and efforts are difficult to ignore and form a passionate force able to not only identify these connections, but also to use the dualism of collaboration between social and environmental issues to bolster both causes.

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