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When we talk about traveling to upstate New York, with its fall foliage and shimmering lakes, the land above and beyond New York City is never called what it was known as for a thousand years—the homeland of the Haudenosaunee, ‘the people of the longhouse.’ The Haudenosaunee were a confederation of five (and later six) nations known to colonizers as “the Iroquois Confederacy"—the Mohawk, Seneca, Onondaga, Cayuga, Oneida, and Tuscarora—who lost much of their land after the Revolutionary War.
I know something of this history. My mother-in-law's parents were born and raised on the Six Nations on the Grand River Reserve in Ontario, Canada. Her father served as chief of the Mohawk Bear Clan, and her mother was raised by Seneca Pine Tree chief, Hilton Hill, at Chiefswood, now a museum. Her ancestors include Mohawk chief Joseph Brant, who sided with the British in the Revolutionary War. But after the Americans won, Brant and his followers were forced to leave their homes in the Mohawk Valley in New York to take refuge in Ontario, where King George III granted them a piece of land: the Haldimand Tract.
The Haudenosaunee had an intimate relationship with the land they left behind—they knew the flora and fauna that occupied it, and lived symbiotically for many years. The taking of that land, by settlers without that same environmental knowledge, was the beginning of an unraveling and abuse of the area's natural resources and it has passed through many hands since then. Between 1788 and 1822, for example, the newly formed United States gained possession of about 95% of the Onondaga homeland (about 2.5 million acres) through a series of illegal takings. By the early 1970s, the reservation had been reduced to 33 acres.
Then, in June 2022, something changed. The Onondaga Nation, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation announced that over 1,000 acres encompassing the headwaters of Onondaga Creek, wetlands, and forest would be returned to the Nation as part of a settlement with Honeywell, Inc., the company responsible for more than a hundred years of pollution in the area. It marked the largest land return in the history of New York, and one of the largest in the country, amid a wave of returns to Native stewards.
In an article in The Nation shortly after the news was announced, Tadodaho Sid Hill wrote that the waterways are “more than just a body of water where we traditionally fished and drew other sustenance. It is the cultural linchpin of our very existence—where 1,000 years ago, the Great Peacemaker brought together five warring nations to seal a compact joining together in common cause.” The giveback, Hill continues, “is an opportunity to apply traditional ecological knowledge to renew our stewardship obligations to restore these lands and waters and to preserve them for the future generations yet to come.”
Now, in January 2024, those who read the initial headlines may wonder what came of this monumental decision. It's a timely question: In December 2023, a decade-long Department of the Interior effort to buy back lands and return them to Tribes concluded, with three million acres, many of which have similar goals for conservation, placed once again in the hands of Tribal communities. So what does a year and change of renewed stewardship look like?
At the time of writing, the Onondaga Nation says it still awaits completion of the transfer of title—but three restoration projects are already underway.
The Nation remains committed to restoring native Brook trout in the stream, according to Joe Heath, legal counsel for the Onondaga Nation. “This is a Brook Trout refuge," says Neil Patterson, Jr., assistant director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, of the waterways on the returned land. Before the settlement, the state had been overstocking Brown trout, which drove the Brook out—the Nation has since reached an agreement with the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to stop releasing Brown trout into Onondaga Creek, supporting the return of the fish that have navigated these waters for generations.
A Black Ash restoration project, meanwhile, has both environmental and cultural impacts. Black Ash trees grow in wetlands and riparian areas, and are prized among the six nations, particularly among the Mohawks, for basket making. Yet the Emerald Ash Borer, an invasive species from Asia, has wreaked havoc on forests across Haudenosaunee territory. The Mohawks have been studying the Ash tree to restore the species, and protect them from the insect—a $650,000 grant from the US Department of Agriculture last year has furthered the effort.
A smaller but just as worthy area of focus is an endangered gastropod called the Chittenango Ovate Amber snail. It's just one inch long, and found in Oneida territory at Chittenango Falls, now a state park. The snails live in the waterfall’s mist, but it's estimated that mere dozens remain. SUNY's College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse cultivated a set of snail eggs, and through studying the returned land, have found that a waterfall within the 1,000 acres around Onondaga Creek provide the ideal habitat for the snail. This past July, several were translocated to the falls in an effort to regenerate the population.
Meanwhile, the Onondaga Nation continues their efforts to recover more of their ancestral lands, pushing forward on their centuries-old land-rights case against the US government, in pursuit of the rest of the land taken by New York state since 1788. The federal lawsuit, which has roots in a plea once brought to George Washington himself, was recently dismissed by a US judge who claimed returning the land would disrupt those now settled on it. The Onondaga Nation has since escalated its case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and awaits their decision.
Change takes time, and members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy will continue to restore the land of upstate New York while they pursue greater returns. Elder Oren Lyons of the Onondaga describes the Nation as a “patient people,” and hopes they may teach the rest of the country how to be one with the land, not simply its owners, along the way.
Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler