TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. – The Finger Lakes region is not typically seen as the birthplace of democracy. Yet, long before Christopher Columbus set sail across the Atlantic, democracy was thriving here.
The Haudenosaunee Confederacy was formed around the 12th century to “create a peaceful means of decision making” between nations, according to the confederacy’s official website. The confederacy describes itself as “one of the first and longest standing participatory democracies in the world.”
Monday marks the first time Tompkins County is celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day, following a July resolution by the county legislature. Last year, the City of Ithaca also began recognizing the second Monday of October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, though Common Council went a step further and replaced Columbus Day.
The holiday is an opportunity to recognize the county’s pre-colonial history, as well as the present-day contributions of indigenous communities and the ongoing challenges they face.
The Haudenosaunee Confederacy includes the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca and Tuscarora Nations. These nations stretched from present-day Albany to Buffalo before European colonizers arrived. The Cayuga and Onondaga Nations inhabited the land that now makes up Tompkins County.
(Check out this interactive map to explore indigenous territories.)
Toward the end of the Revolutionary War, General George Washington ordered a campaign to destroy the nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. According to the National Parks Service, more the 4,000 troops were sent to destroy key Haudenosaunee villages during the 1779 Clinton-Sullivan Campaign.
The Onondagas lost about 95 percent of their land, according to the nation’s website. The Cayuga people who survived the campaign were mostly pushed to Ohio and Canada. While both nations remained sovereign according to treaties established with the new United States government, they have been embroiled in centuries of legal conflict to assert their rights to land and independence.
The Onondaga Nation currently governs a 7,300-acre territory south of Syracuse, led by its democratically selected Council of Chiefs. The Cayuga Nation is in the process of reclaiming land along the northern shores of Lake Cayuga, both through legal action and by purchasing land.
Asked about current issues local indigenous communities face, Fabina Colon, director of the Multicultural Resource Center, said land is at the forefront. She emphasized, though, that the question is not one of ownership, or of taking land away from current residents.
The Cayuga Nation, she said, “is not saying, ‘Give us back our land,’ or trying to remove people from their homes. They’re saying, ‘What land is available? How can we recover some of it?’ Not because they want it to belong to them, but because they want a place for Cayuga people to be able to come back to and have a home in.”
The nation is working to bring members back from Canada, especially, to the land where they were caretakers for centuries before colonization.
The Onondaga’s existing residential territory and the base of Cayuga resettlement efforts are not within the borders of Tompkins County. Nevertheless, Colon said there are many ways Tompkins residents can include indigenous communities in their work for social and environmental justice.
First of all, she suggests building coalitions that include Haudenosaunee Confederacy committees and Cayuga and Onondaga Nation leadership.
“Indigenous people want to feel that they belong here,” she said. “Include them in the work that you do, include them in the events and gatherings that you’re holding, and don’t forget that indigenous people live here.”
In addition, she said local organizations should recognize the expertise of the Haudenosaunee community. She suggested that groups reach out to confederacy committees and ask, “What is your committee doing? What can we learn from what you’re doing? How can we support your work?” as opposed to simply seeking out Native American representation.
In their resolution recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ Day, the Tompkins County Legislature says they “shall encourage the celebration of this day in a manner that promotes respect, understanding, and friendship; combats prejudice and bias; works to eliminate discrimination stemming from colonization; and acknowledges our history.”
Colon, who spoke at the legislature meeting in July in support of the resolution, said acknowledgement is an important first step. Still, she asked, “How are we building conscious and sustainable action…around indigenous rights and indigenous sovereignty?”
Those interested in learning more about local indigenous communities can find links to resources on the Multicultural Resource Center’s site.
At the Ithaca Voice, we’ll be highlighting stories about local indigenous communities throughout the month. If there are topics or issues you’d like us to feature, reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to hearing your suggestions.
Featured image: Members of the Cayuga Nation perform a traditional smoke dance at the 2018 First Peoples Festival in Ithaca. (Devon Magliozzi/The Ithaca Voice)