ON THE SCENE: Seeing our history from another’s eyes

Douglass “Digs” DeCandia poses with Jane Haugh, chair of Keene’s Diversity Committee, on March 25 at the Keene Valley Library. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Over 90% of Native Americans have died since the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. On one hand, the Indigenous people had never experienced the flu, measles or smallpox; they were as vulnerable as the little brown bat has been to the white-nose syndrome. On another hand, the European mindset of land ownership doomed all Indigenous people as the new arrivals forcibly took their land to meet their desires, be they for gold or establishing farms, homes or mills.

A three-hour interactive program titled “Witness to Injustice: Native American and U.S. History from Colonization to the Present” was presented on Saturday, March 25, at the Keene Valley Library, and about 40 people attended, in person and online. Onondaga Nation and Haudenosaunee representatives and several trained allies led a fact-filled participatory activity designed to foster understanding of the indigenous experience and increase respect between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

Much of the history shared was drawn from the writings of Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, among many others. A lot was emotionally disturbing as the litany of abuse over time was horrific.

For instance, a search of property titles in our region shows that much of the land was initially awarded to Revolutionary War veterans as payments for service, land the government took by force from the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois).

During the Revolutionary War, in 1779, Gen. George Washington ordered Maj. Gen. John Sullivan and Brig. Gen. James Clinton to wage a campaign against the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, which had sided and remained with the British since the French and Indian War. Washington’s instruction was far more than defeating the Iroquois in battle, which they did in Newtown, but “taking the war home to the enemy to break their morale.”

Sullivan and Clinton achieved that goal by burning the Haudenosaunee crops, villages and infrastructure. They conducted a scorched-earth campaign destroying more than 40 Haudenosaunee villages, leaving those alive to starve to death or flee from the region, seeking protection from the British. The outcome was over 50% of the Haudenosaunee died. With the Treaty of Fort Stanwick, many of the remaining moved to Canada or West, as the American government took ownership of the land.

Those actions were by no means the last effort to destroy the Haudenosaunee spirit and way of life; others included banning their right to perform sacred ceremonies, taking native children from their homes to be placed in schools where their hair was cut, and they were not allowed to speak their native languages, and taking away their sovereignty; their ability to govern themselves.

A big driver behind this practice is the Doctrine of Discovery, the principle that if a nation “discovers” a land, it has a right to that land. Created by Roman Catholic popes in the mid-15th century, the doctrine provided a framework for Christian explorers, in the name of their sovereign, to lay claim to territories uninhabited by Christianity. Thus, to Columbus, the fact that Indigenous people lived in the Caribbean Islands was of no consequence as they were savages, not Christians; therefore, he laid claim to their land.

Using the Doctrine of Discovery was not limited to the Catholic explorers; the English arriving in Jamestown and Plymouth and most that followed were quick to adopt it as their justification for claiming land ownership. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, in a unanimous decision, wrote “that the principle of discovery gave European nations an absolute right to New World lands,” a decision that became a primary tenant of our legal right to usurp Indigenous lands as our society expanded westward.

Witness to Injustice was organized and presented by Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation (NOON), a grassroots organization of Central New Yorkers which recognizes and supports the sovereignty of the traditional government of the Onondaga Nation. As part of that effort, they have researched the history of the indigenous people of the United States and developed a program that will enable the Haudenosaunee and non-native people to explore their shared past, including a lot of information non-natives rarely learn in school and other situations.

“One of the things the Haudenosaunee women kept repeating was, this is what we’ve been through, how we have endured, and how we continue,” said Martha Swan, executive director of John Brown Lives!. “They said this is an ongoing story; it is not over.”

“I think it’s important to know where we come from, how we’ve gotten to where we are,” said Douglass (Digs) DeCandia, a local farmer and reader of the “Witness to Justice” book. “It’s easy to keep doing things and staying stuck in patterns brought here by colonialism. If we cannot recognize and address these patterns, it’s easy to keep doing things out of habit.”

For example, we have this notion of constant expansion, but our pattern of behavior is using up a finite amount of natural resources. To illustrate, the people out West are burning through Colorado River water far faster than it can be replenished. If those behaviors continue unchecked, the Glen Canyon and Hoover dams will soon no longer be able to generate power or water to meet the needs of affiliated states and communities. Unfortunately, we are increasing barriers to communication and engagement as more people live in physically and emotionally gated communities. Doing so, we block our ability to address this crisis. The “Witness to Justice” model offers an alternative approach.

“What I think is amazing about this exercise is that it’s a chance to participate in grieving with the Haudenosaunee for what happened,” said Jane Haugh, chair of Keene’s Diversity Committee. “It’s not about pointing the finger and saying, look what you people did. Rather it’s an opportunity to be in a community with people affected by this history and understand that we also have been affected. It’s an opportunity to understand we are all part of one community, that we can mourn together and work together to create a better-shared future.”

“I believe that Haudenosaunee practice of giving thanks each day has a powerful effect,” said DeCandia. “Giving thanks is not a doctrine of discovery, a culture of exploitation; instead, the daily practice of giving thanks to the planet, plants, the animals, the air, and the sun has an effect. It’s a daily reminder that we are all interconnected and interdependent.”

To learn more or schedule a “Witness to Injustice” workshop, contact NOON representative Cindy Squillace at 315-415-5508.

(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the Lake Placid News for more than 15 years.)

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