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'Burned Over' Region of Upstate New York Still Indian Territory

The hubbub surrounding the Nevada militia occupying the Oregon federal bird sanctuary now seems to be winding down, with only a few diehards left at the end to raise the distressed, upside down American flag over the Burns Paiute Tribe historical territory.

I felt bad for the tribal nation membership that had its land claims impacted and cultural artifacts sequestered by the Bundy family members and their supporters, but their only recourse was to let things play out between the federal and anti-federal forces involved.

Possibly the militia thought it would be seen by uneasy American citizens as something like a modern day Harpers Ferry, Virginia armory raid, which preceded the American Civil War. But this one had North American Indians involved instead of African-American slaves.

It was also why it was so important to the federal decision-makers to let the emboldened militia leadership be allowed to freely roam the area. They were literally encouraged them to “go off the reservation” in this case, straight into the roadblock arrest of the Bundy brothers.

I never got the sense that there was any thought that the Burns Paiute people would put together a social media-recruited reclamation force to assert themselves and take back the land there from the militia organization. Their elected leadership made the obligatory media appearances and aired their concerns in public. The three weeks that the Bundy’s were in the spotlight also provided the ensuing 15 minutes of attention for the Burns Paiute Tribe. The American press will soon turn away from this episode. The circus-like atmosphere that drew the attention has officially left town.

Yet in other places in America, that sense of distress remains in full effect, and for a much longer duration. It is so because within its earliest form, the founding of America is still contested in a modest way; through the continuing bloodlines of those earlier populations who had always lived here.

For example, turning my attention to similarities closer to home here in the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, I will draw notice to the “burned-over” region of western and central New York State.

It was said of this land that was to have been burned-over because so much evangelizing took place there were no more souls to be saved there.

As I was mostly unaware of this connection myself, it was an era in the 19th century blending religious fervor with geographic location. Influencing the historical Chautauqua Movement of public discourse, to establishing the spiritualism capital of Lily Dale and even to the heart of women’s suffrage represented by the Seneca Falls-located Women’s Rights National Park, American passions ran high here. The Latter Day Saint movement also had its origins nearby.

Even further back, the Revolutionary War military campaign of General Sullivan which had burned the stored corn foodstuffs of the Seneca and Cayuga people living there set the tone in the region. The raid was a way of depopulating the area, in spite of its Indian title.

These exceptional regional facets were tightly bound by protestant beliefs and strict codes of living. However, the inconsistent aspects of murder followed by religious salvation were bound to stain these Native territories long after they had become the burned-over district.

The Code of Handsome Lake is one historic Native American system where the Quaker influence can be seen in the recitation of Gai’wiio, or the “good message,” is noted by some as comparable to certain Christian beliefs. A fusion of traditional Haudenosaunee language understanding and translation manifests in the modern observance of Handsome Lake and his code, overshadowing the Christian influences of that time period upon the original teachings.

Far more precarious is the current manifestation of the burned-over religious zeal.

In 2008, I attended an economic development rally held in support of the Cayuga Nation of New York at the Lakeside Trading convenience store. I was accompanied by a number of members of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, including elected members of the tribal council, in a showing of solidarity. A survey of those attending the event showed a cross-section of every notable Haudenosaunee community in existence today. The organized program speakers of the day were forceful and determined in explaining why they were there.

 A lot of political signage made an appearance, some of it professional looking, but all in support of honoring historic treaties such as the 1794 Canandaigua agreement. From young to old, the people had taken to the streets that day, or at least a paved country road.

Also occupying the same roadways were a prodigious number of state and local law enforcement. Parked cruisers and a thin blue screen of uniformed officers shadowed the opposite side of the road from the protestors and the retail outlet.

The bright fall day showed a hint of rain, and the warm winds pulled the signs to attention seemingly to what was coming up the road at the same time.

The procession was a hundred cars strong. Leading it near the front was the proverbial court jester in the form of a mock “technical” pick-up truck, adorned with a fake Scud missile, symbolically pointed at the convenience store. A Mercedes sedan draped with blue construction tarp billowing in the wind trailed the spectacle, the driver cursing at the top of his lungs to the Cayuga Nation supporters, while the police turned a blind eye to the moving traffic hazard.

The cars and trucks of lesser value obediently followed this vanguard. It was surprising how long this slow-moving show of force proved to be. Restless younger female activists courted arrest for blocking the roadways by shoving their signs well into the line of traffic, with a number of young men backing their defiant actions. The wind shifted near the end of the quasi-parade and the ensuing shower helped to douse the day’s tensions there. Yet it had to be seen to be believed.

The group driving these vehicles is known as the Upstate Citizens for Equality. They exist regionally to prosecute the position that the concept of tribal sovereignty is honorary, rather than obligatory. Their past actions in the form of legal challenges show a determined, organized effort to reveal their hand in this way. This is an obstructionist agenda that passes for civic virtue in the heart of the burnt-over lands.

What does that mean? For one thing, the county government representatives here reflect the municipal evangelism of these self-style anti-sovereign activists. It means that taxpayer-aided efforts to oppose tribal governments, including the Cayuga Nation, but also including the aspiringSeneca-Cayuga Tribe, are committed to retain control of this contested area.

Some of the “tax the Indians” rhetoric that is directed at the original people of these lands is locally construed as American justice. Unlike the short-flamed Bundy family occupation in Oregon, where the public could sympathize with the local tribe, the Haudenosaunee people in New York are left to fend for themselves, and are often opposed by federal authorities for doing so. There is no one left to fight for them but their own people, arisen from the burnt-over ground of America. For as long as they live, it will always be Haudenosaunee territory.

Charles Kader (Turtle Clan) was born in Erie, Pennsylvania to a World War II veteran. He attended Clarion University of Pennsylvania, earning degrees in Communication and Library Science, as well as Mercyhurst College where he earned a graduate degree in the Administration of Justice. He has worked across Indian country, from the Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Montana (where he married his wife) to the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, and now resides in Kanienkeh.