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Why I Paddled to the Pope

A 250-mile journey to deliver a message of indigenous rights

WORDS AND PHOTOS BY TONY SORCI

Two historic events were happening at the same time: Pope Francis was coming to the U.S., and the World Indoor Lacrosse Championship was also coming home to the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Nation. I should explain. As the head coach for an indoor lacrosse team (and a former pro), attending a world gathering for a sport that has defined my life should have been a no-brainer.

 

Photo by Stacy Mae
Photo by Stevie Rae

But I'd heard what the Onondaga Canoe and Kayak Club had in the works for the pope's visit: an expedition to urge Pope Francis to renounce and rescind the Doctrine of Discovery. Paddling from Cortland, N.Y. to Philadelphia, the Onondaga paddlers planned to time their arrival with the pontiff's visit to the 2015 World Meeting of Families. As someone who takes great pride in his Navajo heritage, the chance to organize, raise awareness and make a difference could not be passed up. We had an opportunity to paddle together toward a common goal of dismantling an ancient doctrine that has caused centuries of unjust oppression (and is still in effect!).

It's a simple concept to spend 11 days kayaking 250 miles down five rivers. Our message for the pope, however, was a little more complicated. There is no cute sing-a-long that can explain the Doctrine of Discovery to elementary school students. Few know about how antiquated 15th century papal bulls, used to authorize land acquisition by Christian nations in the "New World," have influenced a concept of law that has done more damage to the indigenous way of life around the world than any other written document in history. The Christian church used it to justify the genocide of indigenous populations. And in a series of decisions as recently as 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court still uses the doctrine as "a concept of public international law" that can instantly invalidate native claims to sovereignty over indigenous lands. So for the eight of us that paddled away from Cortland on Sept. 20, the Doctrine of Discovery was just some piece of paper scripted with meaningless words.

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And what did we discover? I could romanticize about the trip down the Tioughnioga and Chenango rivers, the pristine waters of the Upper Delaware. I could describe in detail about each of the 43 golden and bald eagles we counted, the feathers we collected. I could go on about the incredible trout fishing that exists in the Upper Delaware River; waking up to the condensation inside of my tent in the first days of fall; the open fires we cooked on after days spent on the water, listening to the best blues harmonica I've heard in my life from Hickory's dad, Rick; or the beautiful handcrafted jewelry his mother gifted to me for my hospitality when they needed a base of operations for the ground support unit.

I could dive deep into my spiritual growth during the time on the Delaware River or the connections we all made, but the truth is, as original inhabitants to this continent we need to be doing more engaged activities together on a regular basis.

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It was only then that it became clear to me why I was paddling. I paddle for the children of today who need to disconnect from their phones and reconnect themselves into the natural world. I paddle to inspire the youth to fight for their culture, our land, our dignity, our human rights. I paddle for (incarcerated Native American activist) Leonard Peltier and advocate for his freedom. I paddle for all missing First Nations women. Each stroke for an assimilated Indian, each mile for a child that was taken to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School and buried in the backyard. Our ancestors saw these times coming long ago. So, our goal was simple: Paddle to Penn's Landing in order to help deliver a recorded message at Welcome Park with indigenous leaders from around the world to all living things, and the church too. Together, we urge Pope Francis to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery!

Delivering the message in Philadelphia.
Delivering the message in Philadelphia.

 In 2013, Tony Sorci participated in the 13-day Two Row Wampum paddle from Onondaga Creek near Syracuse, N.Y., to Manhattan. Watch Chief Jake Edwards of the Onondaga Nation explain the journey.

The author, left, and Hickory Edwards, paddling the distance to Philadelphia.
The author, left, and Hickory Edwards, paddling the distance to Philadelphia.