One of the great challenges for a university is knowing when it can move beyond physical and cultural barriers to bring what Syracuse University Chancellor Nancy Cantor calls its ''transformative intellectual power'' to bear on issues in its community. These occasions usually occur outside the planning cycles of curriculum development, they may cross the boundaries of academic disciplines, and they rarely announce themselves. But when the Onondaga Nation filed a lawsuit in federal court in March 2005, asking that their aboriginal title to ancestral homeland be affirmed, the two universities that lie at the heart of this disputed territory seized the moment.
For faculty and students at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) and Syracuse University, the legal case focused attention on the tragic and sometimes heroic story of two cultures sharing the same land, and it prompted both schools to assess their mission and responsibilities with regard to Indian rights and Native cultures. It strengthened ESF's ties with the Onondaga people, and it provided the newly appointed Cantor with an opportunity to promote a new institutional vision, Scholarship in Action.
ESF is the only college in the United States to focus entirely on environmental studies. The college offers a scholarship to Onondaga students, and ESF faculty and students have worked with the nation for years on joint projects. Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Onondaga Nation and global activist for the rights of indigenous peoples, delivered the 2007 convocation address. Last year, ESF established a Center for Native Peoples and the Environment under the direction of botanist Robin Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi community.
The Onondaga belong to the six-nation Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy and reside as a sovereign nation on a fragment of their original land just south of the city of Syracuse. They maintain their traditions, stories and ecological perspective, as well as a political identity that long precedes that of the United States. Onondaga leaders have acted as spokesmen for indigenous people globally and frequently speak out about the threat of accelerating global ecological change and what that means to people whose culture is tightly bound to the ecology of their homelands.
Their court case claims New York broke federal laws when it took possession of Onondaga land in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In filing the lawsuit, the Onondaga have made an unusual request: that no residents be displaced.
''The Onondaga know all too well the pain of being forced to leave our homes and do not wish that on anyone,'' said spiritual leader Sid Hall in announcing the lawsuit. Furthermore, the Onondaga have expressed their intentions in the context of healing. In remarkable language for legal papers, the filing opens 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 a 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 concepts of ownership, possession or 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 pass it on to future generations. The Onondaga Nation brings this action on behalf of its people in the hope that it may hasten the process of reconciliation and bring lasting justice, peace and respect among all who inhabit the area.''
Within a year of the court filing, the two universities, which share contiguous campuses, joined Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation and other community groups to launch a yearlong series at a major local theater, titled ''Onondaga Land Rights and Our Common Future.'' It provided an open public accounting of New York history, examined the specifics of the legal case, and introduced non-Natives to the region's rich and active indigenous culture. More than 20 community organizations and university departments contributed to the series. Each event attracted hundreds of Native and non-Native students, activists, community leaders and professors, and it became a scene of cross-cultural reconciliation that was widely covered by the media.
To conclude the series, ESF offered an all-day teach-in titled ''Finding Common Ground: Traditional and Scientific Approaches to Healing Our Lands and Waters,'' attended by nearly 1,000 people. Hundreds of students, faculty and community members learned Onondaga social dances, snaking their way in intricate patterns around the Syracuse University gymnasium to the songs and drums of the Onondaga Nation Singers.
This past fall, Syracuse University brought the leaders of this initiative together again to share their accomplishments at the annual meeting of the Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life consortium, which represents more than 70 universities and colleges. Richard Loder, a member of the Delaware Nation and director of the university's Native American studies program, who facilitated the discussion, described the events that have occurred around the Onondaga Nation's land rights action as ''far more than outreach.''
''It's been true collaboration,'' Loder said. ''University people and local people together have generated new knowledge, new ways of seeing things, and new solutions. With this kind of model, you're thinking outside the box. It's been very exciting and very different.''
Most American colleges and universities are located on land that has a rich Native history. As Indian rights claims work their way through the courts, the resulting legal battles can be great opportunities for challenging our students to think about their country anew. If done right, educational programs prompt us to learn more about the natural history of our area, the nature and political history of property rights, early American history with a fresh look at early relations between settlers and Natives, the social construction of the meaning of land, comparative spirituality and the practical implications of sovereignty.
Jack P. Manno is an associate professor at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, N.Y.