It’s been not quite a month since the Honor the Two Row campaign paddlers completed their epic voyage from Onondaga to the United Nations in New York City via the precious rivers of the Empire State. The trip down stream was the climax of an extensive campaign to remind New Yorkers, and indeed all Americans, of the historic treaty that was made 400 years ago between the Haudenosaunee peoples and Dutch settlers.
This treaty, embodied in a Haudenosaunee visual document called the Two Row Wampum, is still in force, and has been upheld by numerous subsequent treaties and court cases through the years. It guarantees the principles of mutual cooperation between the Haudenosaunee and the new European inhabitants of the land and, most importantly, non-interference and self-determination as long as the ‘grass grows green, the rivers flow downhill and the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.’ In concept and in fact, if the treaty is to be honored, one party cannot behave in any manner that would harm the other party of the treaty.
After landing at Pier 96 in Manhattan, on August 9th, 2013, and being greeted by official dignitaries of The Netherlands, the paddlers, accompanied by hundreds of supporters and the Dakota Unity Riders from Manitoba, CA, processed through the city to the United Nations, to join in the celebration of International Day of the World’s Indigenous People. There, representatives of the Onondaga, were given a seat on the Forum of Indigenous People.
It was a glorious conclusion to a mentally and physically challenging adventure. But in many ways, the work is just beginning. One of the central issues that bound all the participants in the Two Row Campaign is the ongoing spectre of hydro-fracking. Hydro-fracking involves high pressure injection of various chemical cocktails into geological formations in order to extract natural gas or other petroleum products. It has been extensively used in many parts of the United States and in other countries. It has also been implicated in increased seismic activity in relatively stable areas, instances of ground water pollution and methane leaching (stray gas leaking into the atmosphere).
New York is rather unique in that it has successfully maintained a virtual moratorium on the practice for five years, despite extensive efforts by the gas industry to exploit the Marcellus Shale deposits in the state. This moratorium has not gone unchallenged, but New York courts have proven to be generally more sympathetic to local municipalities that desire to ban fracking. Most often, local control of property has, in fact meant, township wide bans on fracking, since even one landowner allowing the practice on their property could potentially damage water systems on all surrounding plots.
Most recently, Chesapeake Energy, one of the largest fracking companies with interest in the Marcellus deposits, has “abandoned” the fight to retain leases in west central New York, due to the strong anti-fracking sentiment in the state. At the same time, the New York Supreme Court will hear the appeal of the Industry Oil & Gas Association and landowners in support of fracking to determine if the moratorium unusually restricts their rights of economic development. A decision is expected in spring 2014.
The Onondaga nation, who spearheaded the Two Row campaign, are located right in the middle of where some of the most extensive fracking would be expected to take place, should it be allowed. The adjoining Onondaga Lake, which is a sacred body of water for the Onondaga, and indeed for all the Haudenosaunee, is already considered to be one of the most polluted lakes in the United States, due to past indiscriminate dumping of highly toxic industrial waste, including mercury. There have been several attempts to clean the lake up and one such initiative, now 15 years in process, is continuing.
For the Onondaga, as for all native peoples, the issue of fracking is not merely an environmental problem, it is a spiritual issue. Native economic philosophy maintains that any practice initiated for the development of wealth must take into account the effects of that practice on future generations. Even fracking proponents admit that the practice is a temporary fix, that any jobs or wealth produced by it would last no more than perhaps a generation and that such procedures should “get us by” until more sustainable sources of energy are developed. Yet, the potential dangers and damages are really unknown.
In some regions, fracking has produced little known harmful effect, more than likely due to specific geologies, rather than industrial procedure. In other areas, fracking has produced measurable harm which will persist for an unknown period of time and has caused ground water poisoning, ground instability and forced evacuations. New York is blessed with some of the most abundant and healthiest ground water resources of any of the states. What do we owe future generations, if not to ourselves? The Onondaga want us to answer the question: what price are we all paying, and forcing others to pay, even our children to pay, for the sake of a little extra energy now?
For New Yorkers, and those who participated in the Two Row campaign, the show down is just beginning. As Hickory Edwards, at the head of the Onondaga paddlers has put it. “Our ancestors made this great agreement on our behalf 400 years ago. Now it is time for us to start thinking about the people living in the next 400 years.”