Friends of Turtle Island :


WESPAC Foundation’s Friends of Turtle of Island is a grassroots movement to increase awareness of Indigenous peoples’ ongoing struggles to protect their human and land rights, environment, sacred sites, dignity, language and traditions. We seek to build relationships, support Native sovereignty, challenge racism, and promote social and environmental healing. We support the reconnection of ancient Indigenous trade routes and the rekindling of those relations. We recognize the importance of freedom of movement for all First Nations peoples as they struggle to retain their ancestral lands, language, culture and identity. The balance of the ecosystem requires this freedom of movement, not only for people but for all creatures living within it. Please contact the office for more information and to get involved at 914.449.6514 or by email at [email protected]


Join us for a report from WESPAC delegates

who recently attended a Lakota treaty conference

in South Dakota , as well as lively discussion

on the meaning of American Indian

resistance and sustainability in the 21st Century.


Wednesday, November 11@ 7 pm

WESPAC office, Pleasantville , NY


Hear from WESPAC organizers Jalal Sabur,

Surya Peterson and Scott Halfmann.

Educate yourself about how Native American

issues are relevant to all of us today.

Offer help and suggestions on how we can

build positive relations with Indigenous peoples.


For more information, please contact [email protected]

The Rights of the Land

The Onondaga Nation of central New York proposes a radical new vision of property rights

by Robin Kimmerer

Published in the November/December 2008 issue of Orion magazine

Before first light we board a bus and at last light we return, just as the October hills of central New York shade to burgundy and the lights come on in dairy barns for evening chores. Teachers, students, clan mothers, chiefs, journalists, scientists, activists, and neighbors like me—I see all our faces reflected in the bus windows. For the Onondaga, this trip to federal court in Albany to defend their right to care for their land has been a long time coming, a journey of generations.

The highway rises out of the enfolding hills to a ridge, where the land suddenly spreads out below. I see forests, farms, orchards, and, in the distance, the lights of downtown Syracuse. Plumes from smokestacks catch the rosy light above Onondaga Lake, a pewter oval reflecting the sky.

The first part of this tale is familiar, which makes it no less shameful. The ancestral territory of the Onondaga stretches from the Pennsylvania border north to Canada. Historically, it was a mosaic of rich woodlands, expansive cornfields, lakes, and rivers. Rights to these lands were guaranteed by treaties between two sovereign nations, Onondaga and the United States. But over the years, illegal takings of land by the state of New York diminished the aboriginal Onondaga territories from 2.6 million acres to a tiny reservation of just 7,300 acres.

The Nation’s current territory does not even include the heart of their ancestral home, Onondaga Lake, one of Native America’s most sacred sites. In the seminal Onondaga story of the Peacemaker, a figure appeared across the water of Onondaga Lake during a time of war, a beautiful youth in a white stone canoe. The stone canoe signifies the weight of the message with which he was entrusted, the Great Law of Peace. Most people of the warring nations turned him away; few would listen. But as the Peacemaker grew to old age, one by one the leaders finally heard the message of peace and set aside their war clubs. On the shore of Onondaga Lake, the Peacemaker gathered together all fifty of the reconciled chiefs. To signify the peace, they cast their weapons into a great hole, on top of which the Peacemaker planted an enormous white pine.

The five bundled needles of the white pine represent the union of five tribes: the Onondaga, Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, and Mohawk. Its roots, spread out to the four directions, represent the invitation to all to live by the Great Law, which sets forth a vision of right relationships between people and the Earth. Thus was born what the European settlers understood as the Great League of the Iroquois, what the people themselves call the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the oldest continuous democracy on Earth.

Chief Irving Powless Jr., an Onondaga elder, likes to remind listeners that walking beside the Peacemaker was Hiawatha—not Longfellow’s invention, but the real one. It was Hiawatha, standing by this very lake, who bound together the five arrows. One arrow alone, he said, can be broken, but the bundle of five is too strong. The structure of the Iroquois Confederacy became the model for the colonist’s new union, and the symbolism stands today: the eagle in the great seal of the United States holds those five arrows in its talons. It was beneath that very seal that the Onondaga pled their case in federal court.

Chief Powless also likes to say that when the colonists adapted Haudenosaunee ideas for their government, they took only the parts that they liked. “If it were up to us, we wouldn’t have written the Bill of Rights without a Bill of Responsibilities,“ he told me.

Despite its status as the birthplace of American democracy, there is no monument on the shores of Onondaga Lake. Today, the soil where the Peacemaker walked is a Superfund site. In fact, it’s not soil at all, but a slippery white mass of industrial waste, thirty feet deep, left over from soda ash production by Allied Chemical. More than 144 million tons of mercury-laden waste were spewed onto the lake bottom. The water is a stew of sewage and assorted toxic wastes. If you walk on the waste beds, you can see rusting barrels, oozing leachate. The sacred and the Superfund share this shore.

ON A FIELD TRIP to the lake with school kids from the Onondaga Nation, Audrey Shenandoah shares her memories, recalling the lake as a place “where the willows touch the water”—a beautiful place, a place for fishing, for gathering plants, for family picnics, for ceremonies. Audrey is a clan mother, writer, and teacher. As an advisor to the United Nations, she has been a voice on behalf of indigenous peoples and the environment all over the world. The teaching of “think not of yourself, but of the seventh generation” is not an abstraction for her. “We were told to hold tight to our way of life,“ she says, “to honor our ancient teachings, not just for ourselves but for everyone.“ Just as water and birds and fish were given certain responsibilities in the world, so too were the people. They are called upon to give thanks and to take care of all the other gifts.

For these school kids, the day begins and ends not with the Pledge of Allegiance, but with the Thanksgiving Address, known also as the “words that come before all else.“ This river of words calls out to every element of the living world. Water, trees, fish, birds, and berries are thanked for the gifts that they provide, for meeting their responsibilities and sustaining life. Clan mother Freida Jacques explains it this way: “We have a culture of gratitude. These words are used to open and close all gatherings in our daily lives, bringing the listeners’ minds together in offering thanksgiving, love, and respect to the natural world.“

Audrey gazes out over the lake, her snowy hair swept to a graceful knot at the nape of her neck. “When I was a little girl,“ she says, “I always heard talk about a land settlement. This was the dream I’ve heard all of my life.“ That dream is finally inching closer to reality, and with it, quite unexpectedly, comes a process of healing and transformation for an entire region.

ON MARCH 11, 2005, the Onondaga Nation filed a complaint in a federal court in Syracuse seeking title to their lost homelands. Their claim is made under United States law, but its moral power lies in the directives of the Great Law: to act on behalf of peace, the natural world, and the future generations. The motion begins with this statement:

The Onondaga people wish to bring about a healing between themselves and all others who live in this region that has been the homeland of the Onondaga Nation since the dawn of time. The Nation and its people have a unique spiritual, cultural, and historic relationship with the land, which is embodied in Gayanashagowa, the Great Law of Peace. This relationship goes far beyond federal and state legal concerns of ownership, possession, or other legal rights. The people are one with the land and consider themselves stewards of it. It is the duty of the Nation’s leaders to work for a healing of this land, to protect it, and to pass it on to future generations. The Onondaga Nation brings this action on behalf of its people on the hope that it may hasten the process of reconciliation and bring lasting justice, peace, and respect among all who inhabit this area.

The lawsuit is not a land “claim,“ because to the Onondaga land has far greater significance than the notion of property. Sid Hill, the Tadodaho, or spiritual leader, of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, has said that the Onondaga Nation will never seek to evict people from their homes. The Onondaga people know the pain of displacement too well to inflict it on their neighbors. Instead the suit is termed a “land rights action.“ When they finally got their day in court last October, members of the Onondaga Nation argued that the land title they’re seeking is not for possession, not to exclude, but for the right to participate in the well-being of the land. Against the backdrop of Euro-American thinking, which treats land as a bundle of property rights, the Onondaga are asking for freedom to exercise their responsibility to the land. This is unheard of in American property law.

In other land claims around the country, some tribes have negotiated for cash, land, and casino deals, reaching for relief from grinding poverty on the last shreds of their territories. But the Onondaga envision a radically different solution that honors their ancestral land and their spiritual responsibilities to it. Above all, the land rights action seeks title for the purpose of ecological restoration. Only with title can they ensure that mines are reclaimed, toxic waste removed, and Onondaga Lake cleaned up. The action strengthens the ability of the Onondaga to exercise their traditional role as stewards of their homelands. Tadodaho Sid Hill says, “We had to stand by and watch what happens to Mother Earth, but nobody listens to what we think. The land rights action will give us a voice.“

The legal action concerns not only rights to the land, but also the rights of the land, its right to be whole and healthy. Audrey Shenandoah makes the goal clear. “In this land rights action,“ she says, “we seek justice. Justice for the waters. Justice for the four-legged and the winged, whose habitats have been taken. We seek justice, not just for ourselves, but justice for the whole of Creation.“

The land rights action could have incited a backlash. In other parts of New York State, citizens opposed to land rights cases have mounted responses as ugly as they are ill-informed, including handmade roadside signs decrying native land rights and inflammatory letters to the editor. But in Onondaga territory, the response has been different, marked by thoughtful conversation, by respect, and, in some places, singing.

AS THE ONONDAGA NATION stands up for justice, it is not standing alone. At the forefront of this community support is a grassroots organization of central New Yorkers called Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation, or NOON. It is an outgrowth of the Syracuse Peace Council, the oldest continuing peace and justice organization in the country. Andy Mager, a young father and skillful community organizer, had pulled many of us together for the bus trip to Albany, but the work of the Neighbors goes far beyond that.

As a bulwark against intolerance, NOON has made pathways between the Onondaga Nation and the wider community. Andy knew that the process of healing needed to begin with truth-telling, and with listening. The average person in Syracuse knows almost nothing about the sovereign nation that sits just six miles south of their city, and some folks were wary that the Onondaga action would somehow jeopardize the surrounding community.

Because opportunities for misconception abound, bringing unheard stories to a wider audience has been a focus for NOON. Every few weeks for over a year, NOON has orchestrated a community program entitled “The Onondaga Land Rights Action and Our Common Future.“ On warm summer evenings and dark snowy nights, people have come to a local theater to hear about the history and culture of the Onondaga, stories that escaped the history books: of the origin of consensus-based democracy, of a society based on a balance between male and female leadership, of a culture of gratitude and the Great Law of Peace. Most evenings, there were two spotlit chairs on the dark stage, chairs filled by some combination of indigenous scholars, university professors, clan mothers, grassroots leaders, politicians, scientists, lawyers, all come to think collectively about what the land rights action could mean.

One night, Chief Powless addressed the crowd, framing the land rights action in a historical context. “Sharing our ancient teachings is not just for understanding the past, but for a vision of what the future can hold,“ he said. Fumbling with something in his lap for a moment, he drew from its deerskin wrap a wide belt intricately woven of shell beads: the historic Two Row Wampum. He held it between his outstretched hands and explained that the two paths of purple wampum that travel the length of the white-shell belt represent the treaty between the Dutch and the Haudenosaunee more than four hundred years ago. The white ground of the belt represents the river of life down which we all travel. One purple band stands for the indigenous people, traveling in their canoe. The other represents the newcomers, in their ship. The belt documents the agreement that the two lines do not intersect, the colonists carry their ways with them on the ship, the Haudenosaunee hold theirs in their canoes, and neither will try to steer the other’s vessel. “Two boats on the same river,“ he said, is “an agreement to live side by side. But we’re both on the same river. We need the same water. We’re going to the same place.“

“This belt,“ he continued, gently putting it back into its wrapping, “reminds us that our futures are linked. The only way we have is forward, into the future, together.“ Holding the audience in the spell of his gentle voice, he explained that if the land is not healed, if the waters are not clean, then neither of us has a future. The land rights action is for us all.

Because of the bold action of NOON, people whose paths had never before crossed find themselves on common ground. Teachers are inspired to tell new stories in their classrooms, and citizens are organizing public meetings on the future of the lake. Neighborly relations have begun to blossom from casual conversations into work parties on the reservation, shared dinners, and other community gatherings. The past few years have brought the Nation and the city together at a concert by a community-wide choir singing to the lake, candlelight vigils in the city square, shared ceremonies on the shore, and a community celebration with Onondaga members teaching the Friendship Dance. The Onondaga have also formed an alliance with minority neighborhoods in the city, calling for environmental justice and stringent lake cleanup.

Out of this climate of community building, the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment has taken root at a local university, the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. One of its first programs was to hold a teach-in on the land rights action that reached thousands of students and community members. The curriculum now includes “Onondaga Land Rights and our Common Future,“ a class co-taught by faculty from SUNY-ESF and the Onondaga Nation, in which students envision alternative environmental futures growing from the philosophy of the Thanksgiving Address. What would it be like, they ask, to care for and be cared for by the land? Their proposals imagine a future where the interests of great blue herons have equal standing with those of property owners, where urban developments are modeled after the lifestyles of maple trees, powered by solar energy and carbon-neutral. Wounded landscapes would not be abandoned so that new ones could be plundered, but nurtured back to health with the tools of restoration ecology. Communities would cement their relationship to the places that sustain them with ceremony and celebration.

The state of New York has argued that the land rights action will be disruptive, but so far it has been profoundly creative of community—a whole community, a democracy of species, both human and nonhuman. “The beauty of this action breaks my heart,“ one woman said. “But it makes me want to be brave, too. If the Onondaga can stand up for this place, then why can’t I?“

The Onondaga now wait for a ruling on the land rights action. They may have to wait a long time. But then again, they’ve waited before.

HISTORICALLY central New York has been known as a birthplace of democracy, a birthplace of abolition and of women’s rights. Through the leadership of the Onondaga and the hunger for wholeness among the rest of the people who live here, this landscape could be a birthplace again—a birthplace of the rights of the land itself and of a community’s willing responsibility to care for it.

In time, the land rights action could also lead to the rebirth of Onondaga Lake. In the last few years, the lake has given signs of hope, with marked improvements in water quality. The shifts have come as the factories have closed and sewage discharge has been reduced. The water, too, has done its part. With lessened inputs, the lakes and streams seem to be cleaning themselves as the water moves through. In some places, plants are starting to inhabit the bottom. Just this spring, trout were found once again in the lake. It seems to me that the waters are reminding the people: if you will use your healing gifts, we will use ours.

And now, Allied Chemical, which eventually merged with Honeywell, Inc., is finally being held accountable for the condition of the lake. After decades of foot-dragging, the company and the state and federal governments have offered a cleanup plan that calls for dredging the most contaminated sediments and covering the rest with a few inches of sand. Unfortunately, this leaves the bulk of the contaminants spread over the entire lake bottom, where they can easily enter the food chain. Chief Powless characterizes the solution as “prescribing a Band-Aid for cancer.“

The Onondaga Nation has called for a thorough cleanup of their sacred lake, but, without title, their voice has not been heard. The U.S. legal system has not been friendly toward indigenous land rights. Too often, when the well-being of its lands are being discussed, the Nation has had to litigate its way to the table instead of being invited as a sovereign entity.

Joe Heath is the attorney and tireless advocate for the Onondaga Nation. Lately, Joe’s phone rings with requests from towns throughout the aboriginal territory for inclusion in the dreamed-of restoration. These communities too have been damaged. They too have been marginalized by corporate interests. Joe carefully tracks the reports of environmental injury, creating a growing list of work to be done. The Onondaga, once made voiceless by the law, are gaining respect as a voice for the land.

And while the Onondaga didn’t take this action with the intent of acquiring other people’s lands, lands are coming to them nonetheless. A local businessman is calling upon the county legislature to return lakeshore lands to the Nation. Others are willingly selling lands adjacent to the reserve to protect them from suburban development. Another extraordinary example, miles from the reservation, is a beautiful old dairy farm of green meadows and maple woods. It has been in one family for generations, bestowed by New York State for services rendered in the Revolutionary War. Those well-loved acres have been passed down again and again. But the deed carries a clause written by that long-ago forebear that one day the land must be returned to “the Indians from whom it was taken.“ A few years ago, the last heir, now elderly, contacted the Nation to give back what was rightfully theirs.

A neighbor of mine wonders, “Should I give back my land, too?“ But that’s not what the Onondaga are teaching. They don’t ask that we give the land back, but that we give back to the land, to care for it as if it were our home, too.

I think that the land rights action is an invitation for the people of this watershed to engage in becoming indigenous to place. No newcomer can ever match the Onondaga’s identity with these hills, but what does it mean for an immigrant culture to start thinking like a native one? Not to appropriate the culture of indigenous people, not to take what is theirs, but to throw off the mindset of the frontier, the mindset that allows people to bury sacred sites under industrial waste, to fill a lake with mercury. Being indigenous to place means to live as if we’ll be here for the long haul, to take care of the land as if our lives, both spiritual and material, depended on it. Because they do.

The Earth is generous with us—and forgiving. We can be the same with each other. Becoming indigenous to place also means embracing its story, because the restoration of the land and the healing of our relationship mirror one another. Coming to terms with injustice is an act of liberation. By making the past visible, we can then see our way forward. I suppose that’s why some of us rode the bus to court with our Onondaga neighbors—to bear witness to the telling of truth and to accept the hand offered in healing.

Even after everything, that the people who suffered so greatly can now turn to their neighbors with such a gift seems an act of immense generosity. The Onondaga people are offering us a gift of vision. Out of their endless thanksgiving for the land, they are inviting us to dream of a time when the land might also give thanks for the people.

Robin Kimmerer’s book,

Gathering Moss

, was awarded the 2005 John Burroughs Medal. She is a professor of botany at State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and tends an old farm in upstate New York.


‘I’m not afraid to speak on behalf of the mountain’
by: Rob Capriccioso
© Indian Country Today June 27, 2008. All Rights Reserved
PIERRE, S.D. – A group of impassioned Indians gathered at South Dakota’s Bear Butte State Park June 21 to pray for healing and to highlight what they call ”horrifying” commercial developments around their revered mountain.

The gathering was attended by more than 40 Natives, with some traveling from as far away as Canada to pray and honor the lands. Bear Butte is considered sacred to dozens of Native nations, including the Cheyenne, Lakota and Arapaho tribes, some of which own small sections of land near the mountain.

The 4,422-foot peak has been used for thousands of years as a religious and commemorative place for vision quests, ceremonies of passage and renewal, spiritual offerings and medicine gatherings.

In recent years, economic development in the form of bars, concert venues and campgrounds has become increasingly upsetting to Indians who have long made religious pilgrimages to the site. About a dozen developments currently operate in close proximity to the mountain, many of which have been built since 2006 in an attempt to lure bikers and tourists to the area.

Tamra Brennan, founder of the grass-roots organization Protect Sacred Sites Indigenous People, One Nation, lives near the base of the mountain. She said that noise from motorcycle rallies and drunken partiers, as well as fireworks and flashing strobe lights that are sometimes shone onto the mountain, have disrupted the sacred lands.

”The struggle has gotten difficult over the last few months,” Brennan, Eastern Cherokee, said. ”It’s been hard to keep people informed on new developments. The issue is a lot more critical now than even a few years ago.”

Brennan and others are urging the Meade County Commission to deny alcohol licenses for the Broken Spoke Campground, which they say is one of the most disruptive developments in the area.

Originally called Sturgis County Line Bar, the two-story, 25,000-square-foot venue is in transition to be operated by Boston-based Target Logistics, an international company that provides housing, transportation, life support and hospitality services. The property was previously under the sole management of developer Jay Allen, who lost his alcohol license last year due to character issues.

Developers with Broken Spoke recently expressed interest in offering helicopter rides over the mountain, which further angered Natives in the area. The Native American Rights Fund has consulted with local Indians on helping to legally stop the rides under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

Developers have also pursued plans to build a concert stadium and an RV park in addition to the bar already on the grounds.

”It’s going to make it practically impossible to pray in peace,” Brennan said.

Target Logistics President Joe Murphy has said in the past that he is ”happy to sit down and listen to our critics” and that he is ”respectful” of his critics’ religious views. He could not be reached by press time for further comment.

The commission’s meeting to determine whether the campground will get its alcohol license is scheduled for July 1. Brennan’s organization is encouraging tribal members from throughout the region to make their voices heard prior to meeting day. Organizers believe that visitors will be discouraged from frequenting the venue, if liquor cannot be served.

The National Congress of American Indians is opposed to the alcohol license application submitted by Broken Spoke.

”Both the location and the character of the applicant are unsuitable for any alcohol licenses,” according to a letter sent by NCAI to the Meade County Commission.

The organization also recommended that county commissioners ”use their broad discretion over alcohol licenses to begin government-to-government consultation with affected local Indian tribes to establish notification and consultation procedures for decisions that affect religious practice at Bear Butte and all American Indian sacred sites.”

Republican Gov. Mike Rounds and some state legislators have also tried to conserve and protect lands around Bear Butte, but have been unsuccessful to date.

Alberta Fischer, a Montana-based Northern Cheyenne elder, said she is hopeful that the damages she’s seen as a result of the developments will one day end. She first started making treks to the mountain as a young girl when she watched her grandparents and parents pray and perform religious ceremonies there.

”I grew up with it. I know the true significance of that mountain. It’s been a part of my life, which is why I’m opposed to any development. I’m not afraid to speak on behalf of the mountain.

”There’s going to be somebody who will listen to us one of these days. And that’s what I pray for.”

Bear Butte was listed as a National Natural Landmark in 1965, as a National Historical Place in 1973 and as a National Historic Landmark in 1981. It has been on the National Historic Landmarks threat level watch list since 2004.

For more information, visit

Please visit the Indian Country Today website for more articles related to this topic.

Legacy of Canada’s residential schools


By Sarah Shenker
BBC News


Mike Cachagee is not impressed by apologies.

Aged four, he was sent from his home to a series of state-run church boarding schools, where he was stripped of his language, religion and culture.

He was physically and sexually abused.

When he returned home 12 years later, his mother did not recognise him.

“To apologise for taking me away from my family, for losing my culture and the loss of my childhood and the loss of my mother’s love… How does one apologise for that?” he asks.

Still, he will be there in Ottawa when Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper takes to the floor of parliament for the historic step of apologising on behalf of the nation for one of the darkest chapters in its history.


Between the late 19th Century and the late 1970s, about 150,000 aboriginal children in Canada were taken from their home and forcefully sent to boarding schools, known as residential schools.

Originally an extension of the missionary work of various churches, the schools began receiving state funding in 1874, after the government moved away from a policy of fostering aboriginal autonomy and sought instead to assimilate aboriginals into mainstream society.



Made up of Indians, known as First Nations people, Metis and Inuit
Population 1.2 million out of total 33 million Canadians
48% of aboriginals are under 25 years old (31% for non-aboriginals)
Unemployment rate for 25-64 year olds almost three times the national rate
34% do not complete secondary school (15% for non-aboriginals)
Suicide rate among young aboriginals almost twice the national average

Sources: StatsCan, Aboriginal Health Organisation

From 1920, attendance was compulsory for seven- to 15-year-olds, although many former students say they were taken at a much younger age.

While many parents wanted their children to get an education and felt it was necessary to integrate into Canadian society, many children were taken from their families and communities by force.

The goal was to Christianise the children and to erase all traces of their aboriginal culture. One government official in the late 1920s boasted that within two generations, the system would end the “Indian problem”.

It should “kill the Indian in the child”, it was said.

What it did, says Chief Phil Fontaine, head of the Assembly of First Nations which represents Indians and himself a former student, was cause “profound harm, loss and grief to individuals, families, communities and subsequent generations”.

The system was “assimilation founded on racist premises – premises of inferiority, disrespect, discrimination and inequality”, he says.

‘No emotions’

Conditions in many schools were dire, with poor sanitation, overcrowding and a lack of medical care.

John Milloy, a professor of Canadian studies at Trent University in Ontario who has written a book on the school system, says it was a deliberate practice to keep sick and healthy children together, leading to high death rates from tuberculosis.


Along with the pain of separation from their families, many children experienced physical and sexual abuse, although it was only in the late 1970s and early 1980s that accounts of it surfaced.

It is not clear how many were abused, but reports from former students suggest it was widespread.

Mr Cachagee, now 68, says he was fondled by one of the staff at his school in Chapleau, Ontario, and then beaten with a strap when he asked her to stop.

“I was five or six. I would be in a foetal position on the floor and she would just whack,” he says.

Now president of the National Residential Schools Survivors’ Society, which represents former students, he says the biggest problem for survivors is being unable to express their emotions.

“All the emotions that normal people have, we didn’t learn them,” he says. “We were told our language was that of the devil and that we were dirty Indians.

“They educated us, but they educated other people too and they didn’t get carted off to residential schools.”

An alcoholic and a drug user for 20 years, Mr Cachagee says it was only in his 40s that he managed to turn his life around, going back to university, re-establishing relationships with his children and finally realising the value of his Cree culture and language.

‘Unworkable relationship’

The government’s apology is part of a C$2bn ($1.9bn; £990m) package of measures agreed with aboriginal communities in 2005, known as the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.


  When people ask what my relationship with [my mother] was like, I say there was none. She was like a total stranger to me
Susie Jones
Former residential school student

Under the deal, about 86,000 former students became eligible for a payment of C$10,000 plus C$3,000 for every year spent in a school. The agreement also provided for funding for the Aboriginal Health Foundation, and a truth and reconciliation programme.

Many aboriginal leaders feel the apology has been forced, since negotiations for the settlement agreement started after a number of former students brought cases against the government and churches involved, leading to large payouts.

They also point out that the Anglican, Presbyterian and United churches of Canada apologised for their part in the system in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Mr Fontaine says he has not been consulted on the wording of the apology, and Mr Cachagee says he has not been approached either.

Justice Harry LaForme, the Ontario judge heading the truth and reconciliation commission, says much will depend on the contents of the apology.

He describes the current relationship between the government and the aboriginal community as “faulty and filled with mistrust and misunderstanding”.

“It is unworkable,” he says, “and what happened with residential schools is part of it.”

‘Complete breakdown’

The hope is that a full and sincere apology will be a new starting point, “a reference point for a new beginning”, Mike Cachagee says.


Chuck Strahl, the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, said he hoped it would bring “renewed hope, faith, mutual respect and trust” for relations between aboriginals and the government.

Canada’s 1.2 million aboriginals are the country’s poorest and most disadvantaged group. Rates of alcoholism, drug addiction and suicide are higher among aboriginals than among non-aboriginal Canadians.

“Aboriginals have been in Canada for 30,000 years. We were a vibrant community and did quite well for all those years. Then we had a complete moral, cultural and spiritual breakdown because of this,” says Mr Cachagee.

He says the general Canadian attitude to what happened is indifference: “It’s like the elephant in the living room that no-one wants to look at.”

His view is echoed by Mr LaForme, who adds that the Canadian public is by-and-large unaware of the history of aboriginal people.

Mr Cachagee says he does not think the government’s apology will make him feel any different about what happened to him or his people.

“But I am optimistic that it will shed light on the issues that aboriginal people have to deal with,” he says, “so that my grandchildren and great-grandchildren’s attitudes – and the attitudes of Canadians towards them – will be different.”

Fighting potential health horrors
by: Stephanie Woodard
© Indian Country Today June 02, 2008. All Rights Reserved
Yankton Sioux stand firm as hog farm goes to court

MARTY, S.D. – In a commencement address at Marty Indian School’s high school graduation May 16, Gary Drapeau, Ihanktowan Dakota and a member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe’s elected leadership, praised the graduating class.

”You have carried yourselves with dignity and respect,” he told the 24 students, many of whom had won college scholarships and prizes. ”The day you were born, you were somebody, and you’ve continued to be that spirit who walks with you.”

Drapeau went on to note that several students were arrested at recent protests against a large-scale hog farm, or ”concentrated animal feeding operation [CAFO],” that Hull, Iowa-based Long View Farms is working around the clock, seven days a week, to construct on private land within reservation boundaries.

The company’s rush seems to arise from its precarious legal position. In defiance of a tribal court exclusion order, the firm is using a BIA road to access the site. To overcome that obstacle, Long View Farms has gone to federal court seeking a ruling that the tribe has no jurisdiction over it, even on tribal property.

Another federal suit, by tribal members, asks a judge to halt construction because the farm did not do an environmental impact statement, as required for reservation projects, and would violate federal regulations protecting children’s health.

In the meantime, the Ihanktowan have set up an ongoing protest site, including tribal flags and a permanent fire, on tribal property bordering the farm.

”We stood up for the nation,” Drapeau told the graduates. ”It hasn’t been pleasant, but we did it for the children.”

Neurotoxins and superbugs

The youngsters to whom Drapeau referred include not only students at Marty Indian School, located in the Yankton Sioux’s main village about four miles from the farm, but also preschoolers at the Head Start about a mile away. All would be exposed to potent poisons, including ammonia and the neurotoxin hydrogen sulfide, emitted by the vast amounts of manure created by the 70,000 pigs that would be produced annually.

Other airborne pollutants released by hog farms include drug-resistant pathogens that are the result of the antibiotics the pigs consume, according to former U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher James Zahn. His findings were suppressed by the agency, generating sharp criticism by the Union of Concerned Scientists, among others.

Because air pollution travels on the wind, a large area may be affected. ”At Rosebud, we can smell the hog farm we’ve been trying to get rid of here for 18 or 19 miles,” said district council member Claudette Arcoren, Sicangu Lakota. Arcoren, who has long fought such facilities, joined the Yankton protesters.

”CAFOs are an enormous public health problem in the making, on our reservation and nationwide,” said Faith Spotted Eagle, Ihanktowan Dakota, cultural resources specialist and therapist.

Fears for the environment

The siting of the farm on the Yankton reservation has provoked concerns that manure spills, along with the application of toxin-ridden manure to fields in the surrounding watershed – as Long View Farms plans to do – will contaminate the local water and wreak regional environmental devastation.

The operation is on a hilltop right on top of two aquifers: a shallow one that feeds some local wells, and the low-lying Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies deeper wells and contains water for much of the Great Plains.

Within a few miles of the CAFO are springs and wetlands. A nearby stream empties into a 100-mile stretch of the Missouri that is designated a National Wild and Scenic River, which could potentially suffer algae blooms resulting from ammonia contamination. Tribal members also fear impacts on several endangered species thriving in and around the waterway, as well as hundreds of bald eagles in a preserve bordering it.

A personal story

”People think hog farms’ odor is simply a nuisance,” said Joan Olive, speech therapist at Marty Indian School. ”In fact, it’s a serious health risk. Several years ago, I was exposed to hydrogen sulfide when farmers a mile from my parents’ Iowa farm spread manure on the fields. It caused me to suffer what appeared at first to be a stroke.”

Olive recalled that her speech suddenly became slurred, and muscles all over her body began to twitch. ”It took a month to recover, and now I have severe chemical allergies. It changed my life.”

She fled Iowa, where air quality has plummeted and neurological disorders due to hydrogen sulfide exposures are rising, according to The New York Times. She got a job she loves at Marty Indian School, which she calls ”a school with heart,” and settled down in the rolling hills of the Yankton reservation.

With the advent of the hog farm on the reservation, her life changed again. She began working to bring members of the non-Native community into the fight against the CAFO. Many attended a public forum on the farm, and county officials are preparing zoning that would bar such operations in the future.

”Factory farms look for counties that don’t have zoning and are desperate for economic development. But this farm offers the county just 13 jobs. And is it development if you have to spend your money on medical care?”

Research by Steve Wing and Suzanne Wolf, epidemiologists at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, supports Olive’s assessment. Corporate-owned farms tend to site their operations in poor and non-white communities, which are taking the brunt of CAFO-related health risks, the scientists found.

”The wealthy pollute, and the poor suffer,” Olive said.

Looking forward

”Standing up to the farm has been a solidarity builder for the nation,” said Glenn Drapeau, Ihanktowan Dakota and a biology teacher at Marty Indian School.

Other Native communities have sent their flags to be flown with the Yankton Sioux flag and others already at the site, Drapeau reported. ”We’re in the center of Turtle Island. This could be the beginning of an indigenous United Nations.”

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