SYRACUSE, N.Y. (RNS) As a young Iroquois boy living on the Onondaga Nation, Hickory Edwards paddled, swam, fished and caught crabs in the creek close to his parents’ house.
To celebrate his love of the water, Edwards is leading a group of about 200 people paddling canoes and kayaks down the Hudson River from Albany to New York City as part of the Two Row Wampum Renewal Campaign.
“I feel really close to the water,” Edwards said. “It’s life-giving, and to be so close to water is to be close to nature.”
The nine-day journey, from July 28 to Aug. 9, is part of a yearlong educational program marking the 400th anniversary of the 1613 agreement between the Haudenosaunee, or the Iroquois, and the Dutch settlers.
In that agreement, European settlers promised to respect the sovereignty of the indigenous residents and the laws of nature. To mark the agreement, the Iroquois fashioned a wampum belt or string, consisting of two rows of purple beads beside three rows of white beads.
Paddlers hope to renew their commitment to ecological stewardship and draw attention to the waterways’ life-giving qualities.
The group arrives in New York City Aug. 9, when they and supporters will walk to the United Nations to participate in the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.
“Water is sacred, like all parts of creation,” said Freida Jacques, an Onondaga clan mother. “All life relies on it. It has a sacred duty, given to it by the creator, to give all creation clean, fresh water.”
The non-Native descendants of the Dutch settlers breached that Two Row Wampum agreement many times, but especially when they grievously despoiled Onondaga Lake northwest of Syracuse.
The 4.6-square-mile lake is sacred to the Iroquois; more than 1,000 years ago it was the site of the founding of the Iroquois Confederacy, to which the Onondaga belong.
First, commercial salt production destroyed nearby forests. Then, manufacturers dumped industrial waste into the lake and local governments followed, unloading untreated municipal waste.
Swimming has been banned on Onondaga Lake since 1940. High mercury levels led in the 1970s to a ban on fishing. In 1994, Onondaga Lake was named to the federal Superfund list and has long been considered one of the most polluted lakes in the U.S.
“It’s an insult to creation,” Jacques said. “It feels like a very serious time for us because we know so much damage has been done, even though we were warned in prophecy about this kind of damage.”
But even as Native Americans encourage ecological awareness and changes in policies and practices that harm the Earth, they continue to give thanksgiving to all of creation.
Some indigenous cultures consider waterways the veins of the Earth. In many religious traditions, water symbolizes purity, renewal or rebirth. It’s a source of spiritual and literal sustenance. Waterways, such as the Hudson River, connect land to land, provide recreation, and a home to countless species.
Onondaga Chief Jake Edwards hopes the trip down the Hudson draws attention to the interconnectedness of life.
“People have to understand where their water is from, what they’re using it for and where it goes,” said Edwards, who is Hickory Edwards’ uncle. “Someone downstream from you is going to be using it whether it’s a robin or an eel or a deer. We can’t put toxins in it. We already know the damage.”
Jack Manno, a professor of environmental studies at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry and educational outreach coordinator for the Two Row campaign, hopes for a shift in how people view their connection to the Earth.
“We think about property as things we own and have a right to,” he said. “Traditional (Native) people view property as what I’m responsible for. It has to do with our place in the world as human beings and how we interact with it. It’s a relationship.”
That connection makes life more meaningful, said Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, editor of the new essay collection “Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth.”
“On the most basic level, we’re losing touch with what has sustained and nourished us spiritually for thousands of years,” he said.
Vaughan-Lee encourages a reconnection of the sacred within creation. “It is the loss of the sacred that causes so much destruction,” he said. “We are part of one Earth and ecosystem. To forget that is arrogant. We are not the lords of creation. We are part of creation.”
The trip down the Hudson is attracting many non-Natives too — people who want to renew the spirit of the 400 year-old agreement.
They include Alice McMechen, a Quaker who lives in Warwick, N.Y., and will join the paddlers Aug. 2 and 3.
McMechen remembers spending summer days on Jones Beach, playing in the Atlantic Ocean.
“As early in the season as we could, we’d be down on the beach and we’d be there ‘til dawn,” she said. “We’d have canoes and camp there. There was a sense of connection and something bigger than yourself.”
She will paddle alongside Hickory Edwards, whose childhood memories also form the basis of his love of water.
“Four hundred years ago, our ancestors kept this in mind for us,” he said. “We have to think about our generations 400 years from now.”