Five-hundred twenty-eight years ago Christopher Columbus set foot upon the Americas, and Indigenous peoples are still fighting to protect their ancestral lands and burial sites of significance just like the Seneca Nation at the boundary between Rush and Caledonia in Livingston County.
On Indigenous Peoples Day, a grassroots effort with some members of the Seneca Nation at the Tonawanda reservation are mobilizing a rally against Horseshoe Solar of Invenergy, a project being conducted by a six-person development team stationed out of Ithaca.
The protest is set to start at 11 a.m. plan to congregate at the parking lot on the east side of the Genesee River in Avon.
Paul Winnie, a lead organizer of this grassroots opposition has been in this fight longer than he can even remember.
Now he’s 66-years-old and still recalls the struggle of Indigenous peoples from across the United States even here in upstate New York.
“I’m not alone. I’m gonna be joined by people who’ve been in these fights their whole life. Anybody that comes from any old persons may come from the Kinzua Dam era or the AIM movement when you had Wounded Knee in the 60s in the 70s. We’re going to be the people that have always been there for these kinds of issues,” Winnie told FingerLakes1.com.
But as he just mentioned, this time he’s not alone.
Jason Corwin, the executive director of the Seneca Media & Communications Center for the Seneca Nation at Salamanca has helped promote today’s event.
Corwin is also reportedly producing a short documentary on the Horseshoe Solar development, one that captures the gravity of the situation for their Indigenous community. It’s called “Protecting Our Ancestors: Saving Native Burial Grounds.”
Dr. Joe Stahlman, the museum director of the Seneca Iroquois National Museum has been relaying additional information to Winnie about the historical significance of the Canawaugus territory.
Stahlmann also represents the Seneca Nation among 183 other recognized sovereign nations that collectively span across 50-million acres of land as a part of the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers.
His role as a tribal historic preservation officer essentially assumes the role of state historic preservation officers for their respective lands, according to NATHPO.
However, the reservation land status is troubling and contentious when it comes to the Canawaugus territory.
Originally, the Canawaugus territory had been entrusted to the Seneca Nation through the Buffalo Creek Treaty of 1826, which had been signed on August 31 some 194-years-ago.
Although it was signed, it had never been ratified by Congress, failing to garner a two-thirds majority, according to Winnie.
“We didn’t really put our foot down after that,” he admitted.
Since the land is technically outside of the current reservation’s jurisdiction, this legal contention creates challenges for preserving their ancestors’ memories.
“We’re kind of helpless because it’s off the reservation, but then this technically should be our land along with the other reservations based on the treaty rights,” he claimed.
“Obviously, we don’t want the Horseshoe project done at all, in the project area that they have planned out.”
Within the earth that comprises of the Canawaugus territory, it bears great significance to the Seneca Nation.
Handsome Lake, a Seneca, had been hailed as a prophet and religious reformer among the Haudenosaunee and his ‘Code’ carried even more importance within that community, one predicated upon a strict moral code of temperance and self-determination.
He was born there alongside Cornplanter, also known as John Abeel III, another prominent Seneca who served as a war chief and diplomat of the Wolf clan and even fought in the French and Indian War as well as the American Revolutionary War.
“The Code of Handsome Lake is highly respected here and was part of his preaching route from Nation to Nation,” he explained.
For Winnie, he remains puzzled by Horseshoe Solar’s willingness to erode away at their “aboriginal territory,” as he put it.
“The whole issue becomes bringing us back home to the Genesee River where we had our original territory before forced migration,” he admitted. “We’re back defending our homeland.”
If the Genesee River serves as their cultural bloodline, this entire situation has been equated to poking at an exposed vein; it’s sensitive for him and other Senecas.
In truth, it’s the erasure of their cultural identity, which is intrinsically connected to the land.
“It kind of touched a vein with Cornplanter, but I mean, but only because this is more sensitive. Obviously, we can’t stop all of them from destroying sites in every single town and Indian village, he noted.
Still, underneath that soil lies the bones of their ancestors and historical sites that are still cherished by the Seneca to this day.
“And then I realized, we are the people, but we’re not the decision makers.”
Long before this protest had ever been officially in the works, Winnie mentioned that a woman and few others sought to camp-out somewhere in the town of Rush to create a sit-in movement like the Dakota Access Pipeline, but that plan didn’t come to fruition.
“We couldn’t get property for this lady. But I mean, if she went down, it would’ve made a visible statement. Well, that kind of fell through and then let’s just do a protest,” he shared.
Despite that short setback, this is the Seneca Nation’s first action and it’s set to fall upon Indigenous Peoples Day.
For Winnie, less always seem to be more and ahead of today’s protest, he plans to speak little and let their ancestors reach-out on their own.
But if he could make one crucial point clear, he sought to share an invaluable history lesson.
“I grabbed ideas from everybody along the way, along with my own; and then I realized, we are the people, but we’re not the decision makers. It’s just like any place else in the world, the people for Black Lives Matters. They’re in the streets, they’re getting beat up, they’re getting shot, but they’re not the decision makers,” Winnie elaborated.
Unlike Black Lives Matter, however, Winnie explained that the Seneca Nation’s current conflict is one that is entrenched in a physical contestation of soil.
“We’re kind of dealing with a little more physical change here, that you’re going to damage burial grounds and village sites,” he said.
However, in an exclusive statement from Horseshoe Solar Project Developer Kate Millar, she explained that their solar project will not “build on burials.”
“We are not proposing to build on burials and we are and have been actively consulting with the Nations throughout the permitting process to ensure that the fields hosting the project are carefully evaluated, surveyed, and researched, including a pedestrian survey of site areas in Rush and Caledonia,” Millar wrote to FingerLakes1.com.
Every time that Winnie steps to the local governments in Rush and Caledonia, he often seems to end-up asking more questions rather than getting actual answers.
He pondered, “Since we’re not the decision makers, how do they even have any leverage to stop solar plants?”
A part of that problem for Winnie rests in how America has been constructed financially speaking.
“We are caught in this corporate management of the country. Money talks, and then that’s where these guys come in and bribe basically council members, bribe the land lease holders and probably the tribal offices,” he claimed.
Politics is a way of life, one that is even present in Indian Country, according to Winnie.
“Politics is politics and politicians are corrupt, whatever. So it’s nothing new. But the problem is how, why if our own councils choose to look the other way, or are satisfied,” he said.
If the repatriation of bones and other relics may occur at Canawaugus, those crypts are disrupted and “doesn’t ever come back to the people,” spiritually at least.
Even Winnie had been asked by Seneca Nation’s THPO seeing what would satisfy him and he replied saying “well, zero.”
“I don’t want it on a Canawaugus reservation, if that’s what you want to call it, the two square miles,” he insisted.
Winnie has his reasons too. He alleges that the Horseshoe project would require drilling the solar company to drill underneath the Genesee River to reach Golah Road, which is where a preexisting substation is located and needed for transmission power.
“It’s cheaper for them somehow to drill under the river and get into the existing Golah Road substation,” Winnie claimed.
But this poses yet another problem for the Seneca Nation, according to Winnie.
“Golah Road is where we did a tobacco burning ceremony a month ago, and Golah Road is also where they’re going to build an operations building,” he mentioned.
Winnie undeniably believes that there are vested state interests involved in this particular project, even naming Governor Andrew Cuomo and his ‘Green New Deal’ initiative as a culprit, which seems to undercut Indigenous perspectives at the state level.
“There’s some pencil pusher somewhere in New York State, looked at the map, found every single open area and worked with this whole grid program. This has all been thought out for years… It’s all about old farmers finding a chance to get $10,000 to lease their land out and don’t have to lift a shovel, jump on the tractor and can retire,” Winnie insisted.
But the execution has been lacking in his eyes; and Winnie is not even opposed to advancing solar energy. In fact, he is an avid self-proclaimed environmental conservationist.
Even his own smoke shop and gas station’s warehouse has been outfitted with solar panels with geothermal technology.
He still cares about the environment, but has his own reservations on how Horseshoe has been handling the project for the last few years.
Winnie questioned: “You got Invenergy, a Chicago-based company come in here and put in 600,000 solar panels. Why don’t residents create incentives to put local solar panels on houses, for instance or a smaller community solar area that benefits the specific town?”
He added, “If there’s so much money in this thing, why would you let it go out of state or invite them to be tax exempt? Why would you bring a middleman in when you have control to do it yourself?”
“I guess, unfortunately, for us, we still have a spirituality.”
Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic caused a shutdown of social life, Winnie finally had time to conduct his own genealogy, finding-out that he direct lineage to the Canawaugus territory.
This personal connection emboldens him even more to protect his ancestral lands from being disrupted.
The Haudenosaunee have always cared about the spiritual and Winnie believes that this underlying fact has been often overlooked by developers just like Horseshoe Solar.
“So, the spiritual work is what matters, what they don’t understand, apparently. They don’t understand that there are burial ceremonies, because they had no idea there was going to be strip malls in the future,” Winnie mentioned.
He firmly believes that while the European colonizers like Columbus and others eventually lost their own sense of belonging whereas the tribal nations like the Seneca have kept their cultural identity intact for generations.
But now that identity is actively under attack based on his own assessment.
“They lost all of that. We still have ceremony and our language. So, I’m saying in simple terms is that they’re buried in this spot forever, not to be disturbed,” he elaborated.
Under the state’s Article 10 law, Horseshoe Solar must comply with conducting an archaeological survey which has been ongoing for a few weeks already along Golah Road, according to Winnie.
“They’re findings all over the place, which seems to be basically archaic period: 2,000 years ago, and this is on the surface,” he shared.
In accordance with Article 10, the archaeological findings cannot simply be hidden or shielded from the public eye.
These relics have to be accounted for and openly acknowledged and yet Horseshoe Solar is still willing to continue pursuing the project at this particular location, which only seems to create more controversy.
“So, right off the bat, they’re admitting that this is a highly sensitive area, but then that tries to get reflected or covered-up. A piece of this is a loss,” Winnie recognized.
But always looking ahead, Winnie believes that the conversations from today about “protecting our ancestors” can continue for hours and future days to come.
Personally speaking, he’s not sure about the status of tomorrow’s protest, but he hopes that young people from the Seneca Nation are bearing witness to this crucial moment in their peoples’ history.
“Whether it goes anywhere or not, at least it’s just to remind our young people to pay attention. You know that the Iroquois live by doing this for your seventh generation,” he shared.
Winnie then considered, “So, if you put a number on it, 140-years from now, what do you want? What are you trying to save for that length of time?”
“We can look back at all this history, but we’re kind of only left with certain ceremony. We don’t have a written history.”
The Haudenosaunee never kept written records of their past.
Disseminating stories through oral tradition has been the process behind how the Six Nations passed along their histories for generations, but without accessing burial sites like the Canawaugus territory, this connection to the past becomes severed.
“I don’t know stories. We didn’t write down when the first Jesuits came to Onondaga territory. We got what the white man wrote about it, but we don’t have any stories about that are in our words,” Winnie noted.
Saving their history cannot only be achieved through words, it requires action; and that is Winnie’s call to action ahead of his protest this morning.
“We all need to live in the moment, in order for your energy in your mind to create that dream, if you would. You can’t be distracted by drugs and alcohol or greed. Everybody has to live in the moment and look in the mirror and that’s how you’re going to change things. You don’t change racism by a piece of paper or a movie or even a newspaper article. It has to be done by the individual,” he considered.
“We’ve had to adjust so much that we’ve been traumatized, culturally traumatized.”
Ironically, Winnie is fighting back against environmental progress in the form of the Horseshoe Solar project for the sake of preserving his own cultural and ancestral identities, which is an inner turmoil that he attempts to quell within himself often.
“We’re constantly at crossroads. We’re at another critical point because it combines with the earth. It’s not just about us being in trouble. It’s the earth being in trouble, and now we’re on the clock. If you don’t stop polluting, the world’s gonna take control of itself,” he warned.
Even at the crossroads, he still feels closely tethered to the past and his ancestors like Handsome Lake and Cornplanter, suggesting that he has faced similar if not the same the challenges as them.
From his humble home in the most western part of the Tonawanda reservation at the literal edge of the Western Door, he sees the same struggles replicating and stretching across all of the lands in the Six Nations and onward to the Eastern Door.
“If we want to keep our identity, our native identity, we have to hang on to what and fight for everything like we have done for 500-years. I’m no different than Handsome Lake or Cornplanter or before that, or Pontiac, or Little Turtle or any of the other chiefs and leaders,” Winnie claimed.
The intergenerational connection between the past and present struggle for Indigenous peoples like Winnie has been predicated upon sacrifices and accepting adjustments.
“They’ve always had to deal with Europeans and try to make adjustments. We’ve had to adjust so much that we’ve been traumatized, culturally traumatized. We’ve gone and still going through genocide. It didn’t disappear. I would call it genetic terrorism,” Winnie said.
But now, he only hopes that his efforts will not end in vain, wishing that today’s protest will continue to propel forth a “native awakening.”
“This thing is very deep. I’m only going to say a few things, but I’m going to let their genetic DNA dictate and the spirits that are there, talk to them because they are talking to them, they just got to listen,” Winnie ended.
Editor’s Note: Read the full statement below from Kate Millar, the Horseshoe Solar project developer:
“Just as any project development process in New York requires significant planning and public involvement, Horseshoe Solar has an extensive public engagement process and we are committed to listening to the community. We are not proposing to build on burials and we are and have been actively consulting with the Nations throughout the permitting process to ensure that the fields hosting the project are carefully evaluated, surveyed, and researched, including a pedestrian survey of site areas in Rush and Caledonia. Solar power is one of the safest and cleanest sources of energy, and we look forward to continuing to receive feedback and to finding effective ways to bring homegrown, affordable power and economic investment to the region with interests of the Haudenosaunee and local communities in mind.”