Friday, February 14, 2014

The Iroquois (V): The Onondaga People

Location:   Upstate New York
Year:   13th Century (?)

Under the shade of this Tree of Peace . . . there shall you sit and watch the Fire of the League of Five Nations. Roots have spread out from the Tree of Great Peace . . . These are the Great White Roots, and their nature is Peace and Strength. If any man or any nation shall obey the Laws of Peace . . . they may trace back the roots of the Tree . . . They shall be welcomed to take shelter beneath the Great Evergreen Tree ---Deganawida The Great Peacemaker.

The Onondaga People, "The People of The Hills," lived within a relatively narrow but long strip of land running from Lake Ontario in the north to the Susquehanna River in the south.  Modern cities that lie in their territory include Oswego, Syracuse, and Binghamton.

Of the original Five Nations, the Onondaga occupied a central place, both geographically and culturally. Deganawida The Great Peacemaker of the Iroquois, was an Onondaga. Tradition holds that when Deganawida and Hiawatha succeeded in bringing forty-nine Chiefs of the Five Nations together, they met at Onondaga, the main town of the Onondaga People, on the shores of Lake Onondaga. This place became the site of the Great Council Fire, the capital city of the Iroquois Confederacy. While the Confederation lasted in its homeland, the Council Fire was never permitted to go out. 

A European addresses a group of Iroquois Chiefs at a Council Fire

It is said that the Chiefs agreed to uproot a tall standing white pine at the site and bury all their war weapons beneath it. This was done, and the white pine was replanted, becoming the Tree of Peace. Culturally, the Tree of Peace was the axis of the Lower Realm just as the Tree of Life was the axis of the Iroquois Upper Realm, and the Onondagas were its keepers.

According to Iroquois historians, Hiawatha commemorated the event by creating a mosiac representation of the joining of the Five Nations. This was the first wampum belt. Although Euro-Americans think of wampum as money, wampum was a complex system of communication in which every material, color and position of a symbol held a very specific meaning.  

Tradition says that as this was being done, a renegade Chief named Tadadaho appeared among the group. Warped with evil, he, medusa-like, had serpents for hair. Although he first refused to make peace, Deganawida, Hiawatha, and the other 49 Chiefs eventually convinced him. The women of the gathering combed the snakes out of his hair, and he buried his weapons, becoming the fiftieth Iroquois Chief, and the one most prone to peace. To this day, the 50th Chief is still accorded the special title of Tadadaho, and is tasked with being the conciliator of the Great Council.  

Traditionally, the Clan Mothers elected the Tribal Chiefs. The Onondaga still keep this tradition. 

The position of the Onondaga at the geographical center of the Confederation combined with their central position in keeping the Great Council Fire and the Tree of Peace to make them particularly resistant to the blandishments of missionaries and Euro-American traders, and so they maintained the old traditions for a long time in the face of mounting pressures both from whites and other Iroquois. 

In 1720, they ceded part of their traditional homeland to the Tuscarora, who, under pressure from white settlers, surrendered their lands in the Carolinas and moved north to Haudenosaunee country to become the Sixth Nation. 

During the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, the Onondaga sided with the British. After the British defeats, many Onondaga emigrated to Canada. By the terms of the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua, the Onondaga remaining in New York State were permitted to hold onto about 5,000 square miles of their homeland, though white settlers completely ignored the Treaty, ultimately leaving them with a Reservation of only ten square miles just south of Syracuse. 

In 2005, the Onondaga People filed suit for Specific Performance of the Treaty of Canandaigua, claiming domain over some 400 square miles of New York State in and around Syracuse. Lower Courts denied their claims upon the basis that any land transfer would discommode present-day property owners. The Onondaga, however, had no intention of throwing anyone off the land, instead wanting a say in the ecological protection of the area. 

In October 2013, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Onondaga land claims were "stale" and could not be pursued---even though the Court did not abrogate the 1794 Treaty. However, this ruling essentially acts to extinguish all historical Native American land claim cases. 

The Onondaga have taken their claim to the International Court of Justice.   

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