In Onondaga County, Uncertainty And Optimism Mix Like Runoff and Rainwater

By Connor Federico, Eric Horowitz, Amber Hunter, and Meredith Kava SYRACUSE N.Y. (NCC News) — With a history steeped in the muddied waters of Onondaga Lake, the Onondaga Nation is searching for clarity along a sacred shoreline. In a protracted political situation as murky as the contaminated lake it concerns, the frustration and distrust that has built up for years is coming to a head.

The Onondaga Nation will not be receiving the long-promised Murphy’s Island, an artificial peninsula that juts into Onondaga Lake. That much is definitive. What is not so certain, however, is what land the Onondaga Nation will be granted or when. Despite this, the county government is offering bold assurances.

Mike Plochocki (R-6th District) assures protestors the Onondaga Nation can trust his new legislation. (c) 2016 Amber Hunter

Mike Plochocki (R-6th District) assures protestors the Onondaga Nation can trust his new legislation. (c) 2016 Amber Hunter

“I firmly believe that when all is said and done the Onondagas will be in a truly improved position,” Mike Plochocki (R-6th District) said at last Tuesday’s meeting of the Onondaga County Legislature. “Not only are they going to end up with property on the shore of Onondaga Lake, but they’ll end up with property that they like much better than Murphy’s Island.”

Travis Glazier, director of the Onondaga County office of the environment, agreed with Plochocki, saying Murphy’s Island was just an empty promise made by legislature in 2011. Glazier, who spoke to NCC News last Thursday, also emphasized that Murphy’s Island may not be the most optimal piece of land for the Onondaga Nation.

“When we actually sat down and consulted the Nation, we found out that there were other places along the lake that they found more desirable,” said Glazier.

For Plochocki, the next step is forming a committee aimed at finding a parcel of land that is satisfactory for all parties. According to Plochocki, who is the head of the county legislature’s Environmental Protection Committee, the new committee will include members of the Onondaga Nation.

“My personal goal is that there is a consensus on a site by the committee by the end of this calendar year, if not sooner, and I think that’s doable,” Plochocki told NCC News last Thursday.

Onondaga Nation Chief Jake Edwards was reluctant to subscribe to the legislator’s optimism.

“Their word is just like the ancient words ‘trust me,’ but there’s no trust,” he said. “So I don’t expect anything to change.”

At the legislature, Republican John Dougherty (R-2nd District) asserted that the new resolution is just another empty promise, no better than the 2011 resolution it negates.

“It’s like saying we’re going to give you something else, but we don’t know what that something is,” he said.

Linda Ervin (D-17th District) added that the legislation is not clear enough because the legislators did not receive input from members of the Nation.

Onondaga Nation attorney Joe Heath said the new resolution feels too rushed, but Mike Plochocki has been friendly throughout the process. (c) 2016 Eric Horowitz

Onondaga Nation attorney Joe Heath said the new resolution feels too rushed, but Mike Plochocki has been friendly throughout the process. (c) 2016 Eric Horowitz

However, as the debate at the legislature continued, Plochocki emphasized what he believes makes this legislation different; this time leaders from the Onondaga Nation will be heavily involved in deciding what land the Nation receives.

Travis Glazier also highlighted the importance of participation from the Onondagas in the decision making process.

“It’s going to be up to the Nation largely in what has significance and what’s desirable from their part because this is the way this should’ve happened from the get go,” said Glazier.

But for people like Sue Eiholzer, a volunteer with the Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation, there is an underlying hesitance to buy into the county’s assurances.

“I don’t trust (the government),” said Eiholzer, as she sat on a cramped wooden bench in the legislature’s public gallery. “I just don’t trust them.”

On May 3rd, Eiholzer was one of the dozens of concerned citizens gathered at the County Legislature. Allies of the Onondagas stood with actual members of the Nation to voice opinions on a resolution which looked to some like just another impediment to clarity of the lake’s future.

According to the Nation’s attorney Joe Heath, the documents were made available to the public less than 24 hours before the start of the meeting, adding to this perception.

Eiholzer, 75, handed out 54 signs she ran off on purple cardboard paper. Among the slogans printed in bold black ink were  “Broken Promises Reflect Badly on ALL OF US,” “What’s the Rush,” “Honor the 2011 Resolution,” and “Treat the Onondaga With Respect.”

Sue Eiholzer says the Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation’s petition reached a combined 1000 signatures. (c) 2016 Meredith Kava

Sue Eiholzer says the Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation’s petition reached a combined 1000 signatures. (c) 2016 Meredith Kava

All told, 15 people stood up and raised their concerns to the legislators during the public comment period. Many of those who spoke were from the Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation, a group that Syracuse resident Carol Baum is on the steering committee of.   

“It would be how the Onondaga feel about it,” she said. “If they feel that is satisfactory to them then I’m okay with it, but if they feel it’s not satisfactory and it’s yet another example of broken promises then I’m not happy with it.”

Faced with nearly 45 minutes of emotional public comments, Legislator Plochocki requested a five-minute recess. This quickly turned into a half hour break which left observers wondering what was transpiring away from the main chamber.

It was when the legislators returned that Legislator Plochocki announced his plan to create a committee to decide on a new parcel of land for the Nation.

Shortly thereafter, the legislature voted to negate the 2011 resolution promising Murphy’s Island to the Onondaga Nation.

This upset Eiholzer and many others who know the long tradition of broken promises between the U.S. government and Native American peoples.  

“I grew up during World War II, so this isn’t very different to me,” she said. “History repeats itself and we just ignore it.”

At a film screening, Chief Jake Edwards, Oren Lyons, and Joe Heath assure the audience that the Onondaga Nation will not stop fighting for justice. (c) 2016 Connor Federico

At a film screening, Chief Jake Edwards, Oren Lyons, and Joe Heath assure the audience that the Onondaga Nation will not stop fighting for justice. (c) 2016 Connor Federico

The history of the Onondaga Nation is deeply rooted upon the shores of Onondaga Lake. According to Oren Lyons, a Nation faithkeeper, the lake was the site of the Peacemaker’s creation of the Haudenosaunee Great Law of Peace over 1000 years ago.

“Our whole faith is tied to it,” he said. “On Onondaga Lake, we set those values.”

Those values, according to Lyons, include family, continuity, nature, and equality. Phillip Arnold, a Native American studies professor at Syracuse University and the Director of Skä•noñh Great Law of Peace Center, echoed the sacred importance of Onondaga Lake to the Onondaga Nation.

“This Great Law of Peace influenced western democracy,” said Arnold. “ [The Native Americans] sat in council with the founding fathers about the democratic principles, so you can say what came out of the lake has influenced the entire world.”

Although Arnold highlighted the lake’s history, he also warned that it is ridden with chemicals, pollutants, and hazardous waste. Murphy’s Island specifically was found to contain mercury and many other harmful contaminants. Onondaga Chief Jake Edwards called it a “polluted mess.”

“It’s analogous to Christians going to Jerusalem or Jews going to Jerusalem and tracing out that sacred geography,” said Professor Phil Arnold.

Private companies like Honeywell and General Motors have contributed to the pollution of the lake for decades. According to Oren Lyons, Onondaga Lake was one of the most polluted lakes in all of North America. But Glazier insists the situation is slowly improving.

“The lake is extremely healthy right now as opposed to 2011,” said Glazier. “All things have turned out very positive. We are in a much different place now, then we were then.”

Phillip Arnold tells the story of the Haudenosaunee Peacemaker at the Skä•noñh Great Law of Peace Center. (c) 2016 Amber Hunter

Phillip Arnold tells the story of the Haudenosaunee Peacemaker at the Skä•noñh Great Law of Peace Center. (c) 2016 Amber Hunter

For the Onondaga people, the commitment to the environment ties into their commitment to their spirituality.

“It’s analogous to Christians going to Jerusalem or Jews going to Jerusalem and tracing out that sacred geography,” said Arnold. “The Haudenosaunee people are interested in maintaining and preserving those sacred places around the lake.”

Nearly everyone in the legislature on May 3rd seemed committed to delivering one of those sacred places back to the Onondaga Nation. However, this consensus did not detract from the perception of many that a final answer is still a long way off.

For those with purple signs raised high above their heads, Murphy’s Island was the long-awaited and definitive answer to a protracted and complex problem.  It was not the answer for the Onondaga County Legislature. Mike Plochoki, however, insists that an answer is coming.

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