A peek into the thriving native community of New York and its culture.
The United States has had a long, complicated relationship with its native people. Years of power struggles and fighting have left tribes cornered to crumbs of their original land or completely uprooted to new territories. But not the Onondaga Nation. Decades of pressure from the U.S. government have only strengthened their spirit and unwillingness to yield to external desires.
The Onondaga Nation is a part of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, a centuries-old community of native nations ruled by a set of laws, beliefs, traditions, and cultures. The Haudenosaunee includes Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora nations, but because of its central location, Onondaga is considered the capital.
Nestled just south of Syracuse, New York, the Onondaga still inhabits the original lands of its ancestors. They don’t claim to live on a “reservation” because the U.S. government did not force them into new spaces. The honor of watching over their sacred lands falls to the woman; a privilege eventually extended to their children.
The Onondaga’s sovereignty and land have stayed intact despite continued pressure from the U.S. government. Its people’s pride and strong will has served as the backbone to their independence, not wavering to the wants of the U.S. government. Even with U.S. insistence on transitioning to a tribal elective system, the Onondaga Nation has refused, making them one of the longest-standing traditional native democratic governments. They have governmental ties to the U.S. and no elected official representing them in Congress.
Another unique characteristic of the Onondaga Nation is its economy. Onondaga does not thrive off the stereotypical gaming industry so often associated with native people and does not boast massive casinos or bingo halls usually found in other native lands. The Onondaga believe these gaming enterprises would poison its community and tarnish its culture.
Instead, The Onondaga bases its economy around its tax-free smoke shop, which is most of the nation’s revenue. The shop sells cigarettes and other products 24 hours a day, however, it is a cash-only business and functions primarily off drive-through sales.
While Onondaga’s economic success is essential for survival, the nation’s foremost honors its harmonious relationship with nature. The people maintain a mutualistic relationship with the land, taking only what they need. They recognize and respect mother nature’s beauty, something she returns when not exploited or damaged. As the world falls further into environmental turmoil, people should look to the natives like the Onondaga community, who still thrive off their lands hundreds of years later.
Symbiotic relationships with nature and prideful personalities are common among native people, but the Onondaga has a surprisingly special relationship with Dehoñtjihgwa’és or lacrosse. The Onondaga people consider lacrosse a gift from their Creator. The game is such an integral part of their culture that boys are given sticks at birth and eventually buried with them decades later once they pass on. Lacrosse is mighty in the eyes of the Onondaga and can even have healing abilities for players.
The Onondagas Nation is complex like any other community or culture, and this article has only scratched the surface. It’s inspiring to see them defy the odds and statistics of most native communities. While other native cultures are drowning under outside pressures from the U.S. government, the Onondaga has not wavered and continues to be a robust and beautiful place.