Sacred Work, Local and Global: A Reflection on the Waterfall Unity Festival

The Waterfall House sits on a sloping hill in New York’s Catskills flanked by a forest that Mohawk (“Kanien’kehá:ka”) and other , Haudenosaunee peoples tended for millennia. The Cayga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onodaga, Seneca and Tuscarora make up the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, commonly referred to historically as the Iroquois by outsiders. The house is a large, welcoming farm-style building with massive windows and an old soul. The grounds spill around the land to the setting for the Waterfall Unity Festival, held at the end of July. In this space, the Waterfall Unity Alliance has been working to restore the forest and the lifeways the area used to know. This is a space where one can see the knowledge of a thousand generations shared through stories and tales woven out of knowledge and practices perfected through centuries of harmonious work with the land. This practice is now formally called traditional ecological knowledge, but to many at the Waterfall House, it’s just wisdom. 

The festival gathers all types of people to enjoy music, dancing, cultural presentations, vendors and more, but the event’s purpose is to support rematriation. Many people reading that word might have thought, Does she mean repatriation? Repatriation is the process of returning a thing to its home, community, or country. Indigenous peoples have created the word “rematriation” to mean restoring the sacred relationship between Indigenous peoples and the land they come from and reclaiming the lifeways that underpin Indigenous communities despite colonization. This work at the Waterfall House has developed through the partnership between the Haudenosaunee peoples and the Waterfall Unity Alliance, the non-profit that runs the festival. The Alliance grew out of work in 2015 to prevent the Constitution Pipeline in upstate New York; it now focuses on the forest and the land surrounding the Waterfall House and the recently purchased Iotsi’tsison (Skywoman) Forever Farm.

This year, the Center for Earth Ethics hosted a discussion, “Connecting Global and Local: A Back Porch Discussion,” on the festival’s final day to address the relationship between local and international approaches to advocacy for Indigenous peoples and traditional ecological knowledge. To discuss, we brought together Kawenniosta Jock, Sandra Owén:nakon Deer-Standup, Liv Bigtree, Janet Hawkes, and Roberto Múkaro Borrero in a conversation moderated by CEE Executive Director Karenna Gore, who was first connected to the community through solidarity in resisting the Constitution pipeline.

A  mother, activist, land protector and master seamstress, Kawenniosta works with the Waterfall Unity Alliance and runs the farm. Kawenniosta is Orenrehrekó:wa (“original people to this land”) from Akwesasne. Sandra and Liv serve on the board of directors at the Waterfall House. Sandra, who is Kanien’kehá:ka (“people of the flint”) from Kahnawa:ke, has been involved in land defense and political activism her whole life and has served as an administrator, curriculum writer and consultant. Liv Bigtree, who is Turtle Clan Onyota’a:ka (Oneida), has had various positions surrounding the world of art, decolonization, healing, and communications. Dr. Janet Hawkes is a forestry and agricultural expert focused on sustainable and responsible forestry practices worldwide. Roberto Múkaro Borrero, a kasike (chief) of the Guainía Taíno of Puerto Rico, advocates for Indigenous Peoples and human rights at the UN and worldwide. 

These folks brought together different perspectives on the issue of Indigenous liberation and liberation for all. The conversation started by asking how rematriation works for each panelist individually. Jock mentioned the personal significance of her liberatory work, saying that her work goes to a “cellular level.” She has worked her whole life to further connect with her Indigenous roots. Jock’s commitment to this extends so far that she does not label herself as “Indigenous” or “Native”;  she only calls herself Orenrehrekó:wa. For many like Jock, regenerating the part of the self that has been lost to colonization and the state of the world moves the human agenda toward valuing harmony between people and the planet. 

Deer Standup and Bigtree echoed these sentiments, driving home that caring for ourselves is a means of caring for our future kin. Bigtree underscored healing because it leads to strength, which youth need more than ever. “It takes courage to care for a dying planet,” she says. Deer Standup, along with her husband who joined in part of the conversation, pointed out that “to pollute the Earth is to pollute our destiny.” However, both took a moment to look back. Deer Standup reflected that the calls that Indigenous communities have been making for centuries for the rights of nature and humans are starting to be echoed by others who support the work of liberation.  

... regenerating the part of the self that has been lost to colonization and the state of the world moves the human agenda toward valuing harmony between people and the planet.

Other panelists looked outward. They questioned how our connections to other people and the earth itself could improve. Hawkes focused on her history with ecological restoration and the relationships she has facilitated between those who hold traditional knowledge and their government. With a reverence for the earth that most lack, she spoke the language of the plants as she described centering traditional knowledge in government-run ecological restoration programs. As a scientist, she made the critical point that it is the scientific community’s responsibility to elevate the efficacy and respectfulness for traditional ecological knowledge because governments often call on scientists to support environmental interventions.

Borrero bolstered Hawkes’s message about respect for traditional ecological knowledge and Indigenous lifeways. Borrero began his remarks by recounting Indigenous peoples’ start at the United Nations. At the beginning of the 20th century, technology, the nation-state, and World War I changed the face of humanity. At the same time, though thousands of miles apart, Tahupōtiki Wiremu (TW) Ratana of the Maori in Aotearoa (New Zealand) and Chief Deskaheh of the Haudenosaunee felt this change and the growing dominance of Western society. Both arrived at the League of Nations to advocate for their already subjugated peoples, but both were literally not let through the door. Borrero explained that Indigenous communities worldwide began to understand that elevating Indigenous issues on a global stage had to be a tool for Indigenous communities to prevent erasure and annihilation.

Borrero emphasized how Indigenous Peoples finally were recognized at the United Nations. Though many understand that Ratana and Deskaheh were barred from the League of Nations because of racism and prejudice, the official line for many years was that the UN was for states, and states should represent Indigenous Peoples living within their borders. But Indigenous Peoples knew better than to trust the representation of the very people who had dispossessed them of their lands and cultures. So, in the 1970s, Indigenous leaders entered the UN via the NGO (non-governmental organization) process. Borrero reflected that this has raised the profile of Indigenous Peoples’ communities everywhere. 

Despite working with the imperfect UN system, Borrero asserted that the UN is essential because it has significant visibility. Many marginalized groups have used this visibility to shine a light on injustice. Borrero was quick to mention that while many criticize the inefficacy of the UN, and rightly so, it is still a significant body. The issues facing Indigenous Peoples are so pressing and clearly intersect with the UN’s Development agenda. The UN should not be excluded when mobilizing toward strategies for Indigenous liberation.

The conversation shifted away from Indigenous folks to focus on allyship. The festival brings together many upstate communities and invites everyone to the farm. Even the organization itself is a mix of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. In the US and much of the Western world, the relationship between POC and non-POC communities has been fraught, with many asking how to responsibly and respectfully ally. The panel discussed this topic with specific attention to the Waterfall House, communicating welcome while elevating respect and humility as critical parts of relationship building. The audience had many questions and comments about these dynamics. However, the most straightforward explanation came from Sandra Deer Standup, who reminded the crowd that the way to decolonize is to return to the land and care for it together. She reminded the crowd that this is work for everyone. 

The conversation concluded with reflections and thanks – to the panel, to the Waterfall Unity Alliance team, Bethany Yarrow and her family, to the audience, and, most importantly, to the earth. Afterwards, we all spoke under the willow tree, discussing how we could support one another because this is the work we all share. The CEE team is grateful to the Waterfall Unity Alliance for nurturing this discussion and meaningfully engaging with rematriation. Conversations like these are essential to ground the process of rematriation in forums and reflection so that we may understand how to share and uplift this work.