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Native Americans help Syracuse University staff & students learn about the original inhabitants of the property on which the school sits.

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Jim O'Connor
Neal Powless has a role with Syracuse University to help staff and students understand Onondaga & Haudenosaunee culture

Syracuse University has a high-ranking staff member from the Onondaga Nation whose duties in part are to increase understanding of the original inhabitants of the area. Onondaga Nation member Neal Powless is Syracuse University’s ombudsman, a position he says makes him the highest-ranking Native American eve on the institution’s staff.

“Onondaga Nation is the heart, the capital, the firekeepers, the space of the tree of peace, the central location of the confederacy.” Powless said. “So, Syracuse University sits on very important land.”

The Office of the University Ombuds was established in 2018 as a step to promote inclusivity and diversity at the university. Having Powless on staff makes an important acknowledgement of the Haudenosaunee, original inhabitants of the land on which the University and the City of Syracuse now sit.

(WAER, SU Libraries and Access Audio launch The Land You’re On Podcast: Listen Here)

SU and other local institutions are instituting land acknowledgement statements at the beginning of public meetings. Powless, who has a Master’s degree from SU and is currently a Ph.D. student, previously served as director of the Native Student Program and worked in career services. He says he’ll help staff and students understand the meaning of those statements to increase understanding.

How a Centuries-old Policy Continues to Shape Our Area

Another SU alum is pointing out how a flawed policy that supported colonization centuries ago is still at the heart of controversies that face Native people. Onondaga Social Worker Danielle Smith points out the Doctrine of Discovery was cited in a Supreme Court of the United States legal battle that resonates with local Indian Nations. She only started to understand the implications when she was in law school in 2005.

“That was the same year the decision of Sherill vs. the Oneida Nation case that Ruth Bader Ginsburg had written was decided.  … It closed the door for all other Haudenosaunee land claims through the court systems forever more.”

She points out the Doctrine of Discovery gave mainly European explorers the right to claim land and resources from around the world for their home countries. Smith says the total discounting of indigenous people is a misunderstood part of controversies, including Syracuse’s debate over removing the Columbus Circle statue.

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Jim O'Connor
Grammy-winning singer Joanne Shenandoah shared her music and culture with a Syracuse University group seeking to increase understanding on campus. Shenandoah, who passed away last year, is featured in one of the "The Land You're On" podcast episodes.

“The Land You’re On” podcast explores Syracuse’s connection with the indigenous people of this land. The first three episodes of the podcast will premiere on November 9th. Through interviews and conversations with locals, the series looks at Haudenosaunee culture, history and critical policy decisions that affected the native people of Syracuse.

“The Doctrine of Discovery is what Columbus, and all the other explorers sailed on, and that was their justification for coming to take over these lands, colonize them, conquer them.”

Podcast Series Examines Haudenosaunee Culture and Issues

The first three episodes of The Land You’re On: Acknowledging the Haudenosaunee provide context that lays the foundation for the rest of the podcast. They discuss the efficacy of Syracuse’s Land Acknowledgement, a statement recognizing the Haudenosaunee at the university’s public gatherings. They also take a critical look at the Doctrine of Discovery, a key piece of legislation that prompted colonization and illegal land claims.

The Land You’re On is presented by Access Audio, and the Special Collections Research Center at the Syracuse University Libraries, which has created a research guide with more information about each episode.

The podcast is a limited edition, twelve-part series hosted on WAER’s website and available on all major streaming platforms. The series continues to reflect on the complicated history of our land, while also celebrating Haudenosaunee culture and traditions.