Chief Jake Edwards at NECSC Conference 2012

April 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

Today is the start of the annual Northeast Campus Sustainability Consortium Conference, being conveniently held this year at the Sheraton at Syracuse University! This morning, leaders in sustainability from college and university campuses all across the northeastern United States filed into the Regency Ballroom at the Sheraton Syracuse University Hotel and Conference Center for the first event of the day, a panel with Presidents of a few local universities – SUNY Empire State, RITOnondaga Community College, and our neighbor, ESF’s own Cornelius Murphy – who sat down to discuss a variety of sustainability topics, and how they have related to their work at their respective universities. However, the centerpiece of the day came just around 2 pm, when Chief Jake Edwards, of the Onondaga Nation Council of Chiefs, rose to give his keynote address.

Chief Edwards, who was speaking in the place of Onondaga Faithkeeper Oren Lyons, who was called to important business in Washington DC, has long been an advocate for sustainability and environmental rights. He currently is working for the restoration and preservation of Onondaga Creek and Onondaga Lake, as well as working to prevent hydrofracking in upstate New York and Pennsylvania, as well as promoting general sustainable living.

With his calm, peaceful demeanor, Edwards stepped to the podium and began to greet us with the traditional opening words of his people. Spoken in Onondagan, the greeting is meant to bring all those who are gathered together into one mindset. Within its words, the greeting offers thanks to the creator, and a thanksgiving for all things in this world, especially natures gifts. It thanks the creator for all the medicines, the three sisters, the waters (considered the lifeblood) of the earth, the thunder beings who replenish streams, the winds, the sun, grandmother moon, stars, and, interestingly, future generations. The greeting presents the core beliefs of the Onondagan people, which are shared by many indigenous folk – that we must give thanks to the land that has given us so much.

As Chief Edwards went on to explain, there is no word for “environment” in his language. To the Onondagan people, we are all a part of the environment. There is no difference between us and anything else living – we all need sun, water, food, and air, and we need to acknowledge that. According to the Onondagans, we need to share our Mother Earth – the key word being “our.” The word is completely inclusive – it includes every living being. We all share Mother Earth, and we are all responsible to take care of her as we would our kin. Just like an aging relative, it is our duty to take care of Mother Earth. As Edwards said, “There is no distinction between nature and all of us here in this room.” You cannot separate yourself from the air you are breathing. He references a conversation front the President’s panel, reminding us, yet again, that we are the stewards of our environment.

Chief Edwards believes that we are always students of our environment. He believes that we constantly need to learn, and to learn as much and as quickly as we can, so we can start doing as soon as possible. To him, everywhere is a school – he himself considers himself educated at the “university of the longhouse,” where he learned all he knows about his people and Mother Earth. Furthermore, just as we must acknowledge that the Maple is the leader of all trees, and strawberries are the leader of all fruit, we must be the leaders as well, inciting positive change in our attitudes towards our environment. We must learn so we can look ahead to see that our decisions will not negatively impact not only the next generation, but the 7th generation to follow us.

Continuing with his tangents and anecdotes, Chief Edwards related to us the story of the five nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, and the parable of the arrows. One arrow, the story goes, is easily broken. But when you bundle one arrow from each of the nations with the binding of knowledge and the creator’s love, then they cannot be broken. So too we must be like the arrows, bound together by our common bonds. Together, we are much stronger and more effective.

Another anecdote reflected back on the Thanksgiving story, and how the Turkey almost became our national bird. Our forefathers were so happy about all that the turkey and the rest of the land had provided them, they looked for a way to show their gratitude. Instead of the turkey, however, our national bird became the Bald Eagle, since it can soar high above and screech to warn us of impending peril. According to Edwards, with respect to the environment, it has been screeching for a very long time.

According to Chief Edwards, we have a lot of work to do. There is an unwritten, unspoken part of the Wampam Belt Treaty made with George Washington. It says that to live in these woods where the pact was made, one must live in peace with and with respect for the woods and for the natural law, and you must live in balance with our mother, who is now upset with us for disrespecting her. He cites another anecdote, this time about a trip to a hydrofracking site in Pennsylvania. He noticed a bird that was sniffing to see if the water was safe. When Edwards inquired about the situation, he was horrified to learn that those running the operation believed that the environmental benefit of the natural gas acquired, combined with potential profit, outweighs the danger to the bird. Offended, Edwards asked him how he could possibly say that – how can one chose one over the other, when they are both the same and inseparable from each other?

Towards the end of his speech, Chief Edwards focused more directly on the topic at hand. According to him, we have a lot of work to do. How can we be expected to make decisions for future generations if we don’t understand where we are, and where we’ve been? We need to start reading between the lines of textbooks, and finding out the truth about our Earth. We need to learn about the history we share with our Mother in order to prepare the land for future generations. We need to do our part today so that the seventh generation, the generation that will be born when we are one hundred and twenty years old, will have pure water, clean air, and the other necessities of life.We’ve started on the right path, but we need to put our foot down, and demand more of others. We need to kill the notion of focusing on ourselves and our own lifetimes – we’re just passing through, and we’ve got work to do while we’re here. We need to work to nourish our mother back to help, which is an everyday job that will require the cooperation of everyone on the planet.

He closed with a poignant note from the United Nations Earth Charter:

First, do no harm to the Earth.


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