Onondaga Nation uses land rights to protect Earth

November 20, 2009

The Onondaga Nation has used its historic land rights to achieve a huge victory in protecting Onondaga Creek and Onondaga Lake from sewage, storm water, and other pollution.  On November 16, the Nation celebrated the federal court approval of a negotiated agreement that uses green technology to reduce pollution in the Creek, which runs through the Onondaga Nation Territory, through the City of Syracuse, and into Onondaga Lake in Central New York. 

Environmental protection and the clean-up of Onondaga Lake were two of the Nation's most important goals when it filed its land rights law suit in 2005, asserting title to some two million acres of land in Central New York.  The Nation has pledged that it will not evict any individuals or seek damages from them, but rather wants to use its land rights to help improve the entire region.  The agreement approved this week included stopping plans for three objectionable sewage plants, and instead using green technology such as planting trees, using vegetated roofs, rain gardens, and permeable pavement to allow water to be absorbed in the earth.  This week's achievement is a real change that will benefit everyone in the Onondaga Nation area, especially in the City of Syracuse.  It is a concrete, positive improvement that will protect the environment, the ecosystems, and the habitat in a large area for years to come.

The agreement approved by the federal court was signed by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, Onondaga County, and the Atlantic States Legal Foundation.  At an event in Syracuse on Thursday, Chief Oren Lyons of the Onondaga Nation spoke of the Nation's involvement and interest in protecting the Nation's homeland.  Syracuse attorney Joseph J. Heath, general counsel for the Nation, played a major role with the Chiefs in negotiating the agreement.

The Indian Law Resource Center represents the Onondaga Nation in its historic land rights lawsuit and has worked with the Nation to help develop its legal strategy for protecting the land, cleaning up Onondaga Lake, and improving water quality.  Onondaga Lake is the most polluted lake in the country because of generations of industrial dumping of toxic materials.  The Lake is the site where the Haudenosaunee or Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy was formed more than a thousand years ago.  Onondaga is the seat of the Haudenosaunee.  The Nation has demanded a greater voice in decisions about Lake clean-up and has demanded that far more effective measures be taken to clean up the Lake, to clean up other Superfund sites, and to protect the environmental quality of the entire region.  The Nation has cooperated with many groups and individuals in the area to generate stronger support for effective clean-up and protection.

This success shows again how Indian nations can use their political power and their legal rights to achieve important goals that benefit everyone in the region and protect the Earth itself.  It demonstrates how Indian nations can be effective leaders in environmental protection and conservation projects by using their credibility, their resources, their knowledge of the land, and their cultural attachment to their homelands.