Katherine Faull, Bucknell University
View of the North Branch of the Susquehanna River
Kayaking is not just a sport to Hickory Edwards of the Onondaga Nation. It is his way of reviving his nation’s knowledge about its own history and the environment, and also raising public awareness about the ties of the Haudenosaunee to the land. This summer, the coordinator of the Onondaga Kayak and Canoe club decided to retrace the steps and paddle strokes of his forebears by kayaking first from Buffalo, New York along the Tioughioga to the Chenango river to Onondaga on a trip that became known as “The Journey to the Central Fire” to recognize Onondaga’s central position in the “Long House” of the Six Nations. While attending the annual four-day reading of the Haudenosaunee’s “Great Law of Peace” Edwards listened to the words that had been recited so many times about the planting of the Tree of Peace that had brought unity and concord to the then five warring nations of the Iroquois. Seeing that tree in his mind’s eye, Edwards realized that its spreading white roots were actually routes of peace, traditional waterways that spread out from the center of the Haudenosaunee world, waterways that would take him to the sea in whatever direction of the compass he chose to go.
He decided to go south, down the Susquehanna River to the Chesapeake Bay and from there on to Washington DC. “We wanted to take our message from the capitol of the Haudenosaunee to the capitol of the US,” he said in a recent interview from his home near Syracuse, NY. And what is that message? “We are still here. The Native people and their trade routes and waterways are not forgotten. We need to remember our language and our lands. We need to re-indigenize the river.” The goal of this epic human-powered journey was the National Museum of the American Indian on the capitol’s Mall where an exhibition opened on September 21, 2014, “Nation to Nation,” that celebrates the historic treaties drawn up between the Native nations and the colonial governments. “The treaties are still valid,” said Edwards “so we decided to go see them.”
Edwards carrying the Haudenosaunee flag to the National Museum of the American Indian
Although prepared to paddle over 500 miles alone, Hickory Edwards could not help but attract support from wherever he went. Joined five days into the journey by fellow kayaker, Noah Onheda and supported the whole way down by his parents acting as ground crew, Edwards described the highlights of the trip down the Susquehanna. For example, standing at Indian Rocks just north of Wyalusing, where Handsome Lake, religious leader of the Six Nations in the late 1700s contemplated the spiritual future of his people. Or the petroglyphs at Safe Harbor that represent powerful, ancient things, carved into what looks like a little Turtle Island in the river. “This is what we must do,” said Edwards “relearn the waterways of our peoples to know where these places are.” Following what he called the “white route of peace” south, Edwards claimed they never had one bad night. “The water was good to us all the way down.” Well, except the very last day, when the winds on the Chesapeake Bay picked up and the waves rose so high around the kayaks that Edwards lost sight of his paddling companion Noah for the height of the water. “Maybe the waves didn’t want us on the water that last day,” Edwards mused. Despite the wind and tide and waves, they made it to Sandy Point State Park, just outside Annapolis, Maryland where they were greeted by representatives of the National Park Service, Deanna Beacham and Suzanne Copping, and treated to a meal, big enough to sate any epic paddler’s appetite!
Having not really used their legs for nearly three weeks, walking over 30 miles from Annapolis to Washington DC was no easy feat. But, they did it. Arriving at the nation’s Mall and the NMAI was a historic moment, with the Haudenosaunee flag flying high. “We did it,” he said, “we came from our capital to yours to see the historic treaties.” And they had even brought water from the spring on the Onondaga Nation land to water the tobacco plants in front of the museum.
Edwards and his father and co-paddler, Noah Onheda examine the treaties made from Nation to Nation at the NMAI exhibit that opened September 21, 2014
Now back home for almost the first time this summer, Hickory Edwards is already planning his next big trip. From kayak races on the Onondaga creek, to a Peacemakers’ journey, to joining the Two Row on the Grand River in Canada next summer, Edwards paddles to revitalize our awareness that clean water is important. “The circle of life starts out with the next generation looking up at us from the earth,” he explained. “They grow and live and return to the earth. But there is one constant throughout, and that is water. Waterways are the veins of our Mother Earth.”
And it is along those life-giving waterways that Hickory Edwards will continue his personal quest.