County plan to build aquarium on shore of Onondaga Lake ignores 1794 treaty


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The $85 million Syracuse Aquarium Project is set to be built in Syracuse’s Inner Harbor near the shore of Onondaga Lake on ancestral Haudenosaunee land. But a 1794 treaty means the state of New York took this land unjustly.

The Treaty of Canandaigua—signed on Nov. 11, 1794, by U.S. Secretary of State Timothy Pickering and 50 chiefs, or sachems, and warlords of the Iroquois—set out reservations belonging to each nation, which “shall remain theirs, until what they choose to sell the same to the people of the United States who have the right to buy.

“We would all be better off if everyone worked together for the common good,” said Onondaga Nation legal counsel Joe Heath. “That’s not what’s happening here. And the aquarium, unfortunately, is the last chapter.

According to the treaty, the inner harbor of Syracuse and the lands within a mile of the lake belong to the Onondaga Nation.

The US government has never redeemed reservation lands from the Oneida, Onondaga and Cayuga nations. Legally, Heath said, the treaty is still in effect.

Heath pointed out McGirt v. Oklahoma, who stated that once Congress ratifies a treaty and creates a reservation, the reservation remains intact unless Congress acts to diminish or terminate it. The Commerce and Relations Act of 1790 – which bars anyone other than the federal government from transferring land – is void because it “gives no remedy”, he said.

Essentially, he said, the federal government still recognizes treaties like the Treaty of Canandaigua, but has no recourse if it is violated.

In 2011, the county legislature passed a resolution promising to return some of the land on the lake to the Nation, but Heath said she never followed through.

“(The resolution) meant that the nation would once again have a footprint there, so that its citizens could continue their relationship with the lake that was interrupted for about 250 years,” Heath said. “This promise has not been kept.”

Heath said an elder clan mother did not believe in the integrity of the resolution at the time and expected it to end like “every other promise”. Heath, who at the time felt like he had made progress, said he understood now.

“Every time a promise is broken, it adds to the historical trauma of not being able to interact with their living relative, because that’s how they feel about the lake,” he said. “There’s a constant historical trauma that keeps coming back because people won’t face the real story.”

Nation members are unable to fulfill their cultural and environmental obligation to protect the land and water due to their separation from the lake, Heath said. The lake, historically sacred to the Haudenosaunee, remains polluted after a century of chemical dumping.

As part of New York State’s 1,000-acre land return to the Onondaga Nation, the state will ask Honeywell Inc. to implement 17 restoration projects and pay more than $5 million for further restoration of the Onondaga Lake watershed.

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The agreement is part of the Onondaga Lake Natural Resource Damage Assessment Restoration Plan, which cites that Honeywell and its predecessors dumped “large quantities of mercury” into the lake between 1881 and 1986. Sophia Powless , a member of the Onondaga Nation who works for the Climate Reality Project, said building an aquarium is counterintuitive to promoting the environment that’s already there.

“What I have seen a lot with environmental and climate action (which) is quite ironic is that we always want to create new spaces and create space to conserve a certain species, while neglecting to take care of the area that is already degrading, the area that … hasn’t been fully cleaned up yet,” she said.

The trout that used to live in Onondaga Creek are no longer there, Powless and Heath said. It is estimated that 7 million cubic meters of sediment in the lake remain contaminated with mercury.

Kirstin Lyons, a member of the Oneida Nation who grew up on the Onondaga Reservation, has a doctorate in human development and family science. student at Syracuse University. She said she has worked extensively with the refugee population of Syracuse, some of whom live off fish from the lake, in nutrition education for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Onondaga County. Lyons saw a gap in how information about the polluted fish was conveyed, she said.

Lyons also said her experience as a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program educator has her wondering how the aquarium will help children in the city of Syracuse and the Onondaga Nation.

“The argument is always, ‘it’s going to bring tourism, it’s going to create jobs’ but with Onondaga being sovereign, are they included in your sentiment?” she says. “On that individual level, I’m more aware of ‘how are you helping these kids right now?'”

For Heath, the aquarium represents the county’s neglect of such efforts.

“What we’re doing is we’re building a monument to the fish that don’t live here. And ignoring the fact that this lake was once crystal clean, producing an overabundance of cold, clean water fish that have disappeared,” he said.


Heath said Onondaga County first tried to contact the Nation to include them in the discussion on July 28, a day before County Executive Ryan McMahon announced the aquarium had the necessary votes. to pass.

With a 2011 resolution to return land on the lake not being followed, Onondaga County Environmental Bureau Director Travis Glazier called the resolution an “anomaly” in the county’s efforts to make the entire shoreline public in a 2016 interview with, and clarified the county’s intent to “keep this land in the public domain.”

Powless said when it comes to the lake, lawmakers overlook traditional knowledge and Haudenosaunee history with the land when deciding what’s best for the community. She said one group dominates the conversation, to the detriment of the indigenous peoples who are directly affected.

“I think people are very hesitant to talk about land rights – because these are our ancestral lands, the places where we were – (because) now people don’t understand exactly. They’re like, ‘oh, but you’re not here anymore,’” Powless said. “But in reality, we still are. It’s still part of our culture, it’s something we’re still deeply connected to.

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