Members of the Onondaga Nation paddling on local waters

Connect to Protect

Photo: Hickory Edwards

How Hickory Edwards is reconnecting traditional water trails from the Onondaga Nation to restore ancient knowledge—and launching the next generation of paddlers committed to protecting them.

One look at the thumbprint of Hickory Edwards and you’ll know he’s found his calling: It has the shape of a paddle right in the middle. Edwards, 41, is a member of the Onondaga Nation (south of Syracuse, N.Y.), who uses paddling as a way to educate others about his Indigenous ancestors and their relationship with local waters. 

That history of waterways as avenues of connection and shared knowledge, however, wasn’t always clear. Edwards only discovered their potential on a total whim. He wanted to know what lay beyond his own nation’s borders. So, he took to his hometown Onondaga creek and started paddling. The 2008 journey simply led him 12 miles to Onondaga Lake (often called America’s most polluted lake due to city sewage and industrial dumping). But the trip inspired him to create the Onondaga Canoe and Kayak Club, a nonprofit designed to “relearn the ancient water trails that were once common knowledge to our native grandfathers.” 

The club’s first crusade: organizing a group in 2013 to paddle from the Onondaga Nation down the Hudson River to New York City to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Two Row Wampum, a landmark treaty between the Haudenosaunee and the Dutch. A year later, he rallied a group to paddle from Tully, N.Y., to Washington, D.C., along the Tioughnioga, Chenango and Susquehanna rivers into Chesapeake Bay, and then walk two days across Maryland to attend the opening of a National Museum of the American Indian exhibit. He also led a trip on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. In May 2022, he came back to the Susquehanna, bringing a mix of Onondaga and other Native Americans on a 100-mile paddle to its near confluence with the Chenango River. 

Fifteen years on, the Club has only amassed more canoes and kayaks, ever dedicated to retracing the traditional network of waterways connecting the original Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, while exposing new people to the waters he loves (including his 10-year-old daughter, ElliRose). 

Public Lands recently caught up with Edwards between the handful of trips he leads each year, noting his ideas for future expeditions designed to get people outside, educate them on the region’s Native American history, and get them to care about the environment they’re traversing in the process. 

 Hickory Edwards of the Onondaga Nation paddling on local waters Photo: Hickory Edwards

PUBLIC LANDS: Tell us more about your club. What’s its mission? 

HICKORY EDWARDS: The main goal is to help people get to know these waters and lands as our grandfathers once did. We want to get people out and teach them about the waterways and the land. I try to teach people as much as I possibly can, from where different nations started and ended to some of their traditions. People need to know these things; we want to bring them outside so they return with knowledge of the region’s land and water. Our Creator didn’t just put us on these reservations; he put us on this Earth. I try to share that with everyone who goes. 

Who are your trips targeted for? 

Basically, anyone who’s interested in coming along, but we bring a lot of youth along on these trips as well. The club raises our own money, so the trips are free for people, helping anyone who wants to go. We have a core group that goes a lot of the time, and a lot of other people show up for a day or two here and there.  

And you’ve taken your daughter along on some of them? 

A lot of people have never known about these waters and land, but ElliRose has known for her whole life that these rivers are highways. She’s gone on every single trip since she was born. She has about 2,000 miles under her already.  

Where do you take them? 

We bring people down waterways that were important to our people. We show them old paddling routes and portaging paths, and even old villages and nation boundary lines. Binghamton [N.Y.] wasn’t always called that. People need to know that. These waterways used to connect all these nations together; it’s how we’d do our trading. We want to show that they can still connect the knowledge of our people. Helping bring that back is something I am very proud of.  

How are you using these paddling trips to make positive change? 

I hope to teach people things that aren’t archived in history books, from the Onondaga perspective as well as legends of our Haudenosaunee people. Our hope is also to expose people to the outdoors, which improves their lives by learning more about the land and water around them. They also become advocates to help protect these places. Onondaga Lake has experienced hundreds of years of pollution and when people see that they want to help. They also see firsthand the effects of manure and blue-green algae and what fracking does to the river. These trips have been a catalyst for people to start taking a stance. 

And what was the recent trip down the Susquehanna about?

We started in Cooperstown [N.Y.] and went about 100 miles, then another 50 miles or so to Binghamton, which completed the entire 444 miles of the Susquehanna, from its source to Chesapeake Bay, officially joining the ‘444 Club.’ Any river out there, I want to know it. It’s what connects me back to my ancestors. It was their land where they used to roam as free as the wind, and that’s the same thing I’m trying to do now.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.