Reclaiming Part of a Lost Homeland
In 1779 George Washington initiated the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign, intending to confiscate American Indian land across Central New York. The campaign was successful, leaving some 43 villages burned to the ground. The usurped Indian land was divided into tracts and used to pay off U.S. soldiers in compensation for their service in the Revolutionary War. The results left the Cayuga Nation practically landless.
The Cayuga Nation is one of six separate American Indian nations—the others being the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, and Tuscarora—which together form the Haudenosaunee confederacy.
Haudenosaunee, meaning “people building an extended house,” is the name preferred and used by the people also known as the Iroquois. During Washington’s campaign, five of the Haudenosaunee nations managed to hold on to at least a small portion of their land, but the Cayuga were not as fortunate.
Nearly 225 years later, against unlikely odds, the Cayuga Nation recovered a portion of its lost territory, thanks in no small part to the efforts of two very determined Ithaca College faculty members.
This past December, the Cayuga people signed the papers that made official the reclamation of a small — just 70 acres — but significant portion of their homeland. A lengthy list of students from IC and Wells College, local community members, and many members of the neighboring Onondaga Nation worked alongside the two people who have practically made this their life mission over the past six years: anthropology professors Brooke Olson and Jack Rossen. A group they joined shortly after it was begun in 1999, SHARE (Strengthening Haudenosaunee - American Relations through Education), formed a framework for their collective efforts.
It all started with a birthday party, as Olson tells it. She and her then five-year-old daughter attended the celebration for the daughter of Ann and Paul Mulvaney at their farmhouse, located 45 minutes north of Ithaca in Springport. At the party, Ann Mulvaney casually mentioned that her family was going to sell its 70-acre certified organic farm and move downstate.
“At that moment a lightening bolt of inspiration shot through me,” Olson says. “I knew that the Cayuga needed to have this farmland.”
The Mulvaneys’ property was situated atop a sacred site adjacent to one of the largest Cayuga towns, known as “Cayuga Castle.” (Accommodating 50 longhouses and surrounded by a palisade, or log wall, the town had looked to the European colonists like a castle; hence its name. Many nation territories still have “castle” attached to their names, such as Mohawk Castle along the New York Thruway.) With its fertile soil, the Mulvaneys’ farm, thought Olson, was the perfect piece of land on which the Cayuga might reunite. She shared her idea with the Mulvaneys and asked them to hold off on plans to sell the farm.
“Ann and Paul loved the idea,” Olson says, “and appreciated the fact that they could play a part in assisting the Cayuga reconnect with their ancestral homeland.” The Mulvaneys agreed to sell quietly, so as to not generate complaints from members of the local anti-Indian movement (who would later put up signs of protest).
The agreed-upon price was $240,000, and in April 2001 Olson and Rossen contributed the down payment of $36,000—a combination of (mostly) their own pooled money, along with donations from the local community. Rossen put the mortgage in his own name (“I had no debt at the time,” he smiles now).
The whole transaction took place with nobody telling the bank what the buyers planned to do with the land. “We feared [they] wouldn’t give Jack the mortgage if they knew we wanted to buy the farm to give it to an Indian nation,” Olson remembers. By law, mortgage holders may not repossess land that is communally owned, which is why American Indian groups living on nation territory have trouble getting mortgages.
Since then the fund-raising has continued nonstop. SHARE organized festivals and other fund-raising events, running most everything under its name. And, Olson notes, “I have taken on lots of extra teaching since 2001, to make mortgage payments on the farm and pay farm bills, feed horses, and so forth. So has Jack.” Olson says she felt responsible about the success of the project as the one who convinced everyone of its importance in initiating healing and reconciliation for the Cayuga. SHARE also bought a new furnace, built a new front porch, and added a deck to be used for music performances by native and non-native bands during the festivals and ceremonies.
By 2005, after surveys and closing costs, SHARE needed $202,000 to pay off the mortgage and fees involved in transferring title of the property to the Cayuga Nation. The Haudenosaunee put up the money. On December 22, ownership of the farm was officially deeded to the traditional council of the Cayuga Nation of New York State.
Olson’s and Rossen’s years of fund-raising, overtime, and sacrifice toward the Cayuga land reclamation is part of a growing trend called public anthropology. Anthropologists use their skills in community settings for positive social change, while examining larger social issues. “[The] promotion of cultural survival,” says Olson, “is at the heart of my work as a cultural anthropologist. Getting a piece of homeland to the Cayuga represents the greatest achievement an anthropologist can accomplish.”
More than 200 years after their families and communities were torn apart, the majority of the Cayuga people are scattered around New York. Indeed, only a few are left who can speak the native language.
The best hope for the nation over the years was a U.S. court–instituted land claim, created in 1980. During the court battle, the Cayuga attempted to win back their land. But last year the case was dismissed, leaving the Cayuga with huge obstacles to coming together again as a people. Now, although it is a small piece, the farmland that Rossen and Olson helped them reclaim gives many Cayuga new hope, and a home base.
--Brynn Mannino '06 and Maura Stephens