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The Good Mind 2016

Highly Recommended

Distributed by Good Docs
Produced by Gwendolen Cates
Directed by Gwendolen Cates
Streaming, 66 mins

College - General Adult
Environmentalism; Human Rights; Native Americans

Date Entered: 08/07/2023

Reviewed by Catherine Michael, Communications & Legal Studies Librarian, Ithaca College

The Good Mind is a film that explores the land rights issues of the Onondaga Nation (part of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy) of Central, New York. An important theme is how, fallen into the hands of corporations, the sacred lands and waters are now polluted. It also explores history from the valuable perspective of the Onondaga tribe and their quest for the enforcement of a U.S. treaty granting them territory as well as environmental stewardship.

Filmmaker and photographer Gwendolen Cates (@gwendocates on X) produced, directed and edited this film. She is currently fundraising through for a new documentary on the Document of Discovery, a legal concept that is touched upon in The Good Mind. After viewing The Good Mind, a deep dive into this historical legal concept would be valuable; the planned documentary would be international in scope rather than focusing on one tribe.

The opening scene of the documentary includes a voiceover of how the Peacemaker, a role of community conflict resolution, charged the people to work together, “on the principles of peace, equality, and unity, the power of the good minds. And if the good minds prevail, peace prevails.” Can the power of the Good Mind prevail? The documentary outlines the inequality and disunity that has existed since lands were appropriated and a treaty left unacknowledged. It includes setbacks, progress and ends on a note of hope.

Prominent individuals that are followed include Joe Heath, General Counsel for the Onondaga Nation, Jake Edwards, Onondaga Nations Chief, and Oren Lyons, Faith Keeper (one who mediates peace), Onondaga Nation. Freida Jacques, Clan Mother and schoolteacher, appears as well. Jake’s young granddaughter sings beautifully and symbolizes the hope of the next generation.

Sganyodaiyo, or Handsome Lake, was the Chief of the Onondaga tribe. In 1799 he had a vision that warned everyone to protect the earth or “the generation that allows this to happen is going to suffer beyond all comprehension. And tell your people, do not let it be your generation.” One important theme in the documentary is the environmental consequences of corporations having control over water and land that belonged to Native Americans. Onondaga Lake is badly polluted by corporations and the corporations have failed to clean it up. If the Onondaga Nation had true stewardship of the land, this would have been prevented. As it is, the tribe barely has access to the lake. The hope is that people will become aware and unite against environmental destruction. One segment in Albany, NY (the capital of New York) shows a successful anti-fracking campaign. Later in the documentary, echoing the advice of Handsome Lake, Oren Lyons (born in 1930) presents to the United Nations on the severe consequences of not respecting Mother Earth. Lyons is also seen tirelessly advocating for Native American rights to newspapers in New York City and at a climate march alongside Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo.

The documentary also presents a grassroots history of indigenous people such as how the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee influenced elements of the formation the United States and the Constitution. One example that inspired the founding fathers is the very formation of a confederacy of shared powers. It offers criticism, calling the Constitution of the United States a “half democracy” until women had a chance to vote. Historian Sally Roesch Wagner explained how suffragettes of New York knew Haudenosaunee women, noted they had political voice, and were inspired by them. On a darker note, President Washington’s Indian name is Conotocauris, or Town Destroyer; he ordered the Sullivan Expedition (1779) that destroyed Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) villages.

The filmmaker travelled to the National Archives, Washington, DC to document the primary source, the Treaty of Canandaigua (a treaty of peace and friendship), that assured the tribe that the lands they occupied could not be taken away from them. Yet, after the Revolutionary War, there was acquisition of great areas of native lands in New York that caused many of the legal grievances that are still being challenged today. Commentary on the treaty was provided by Robert Miller, Professor of Law at Arizona State University. He explained that Article Six of the Constitution states that treaties are the supreme law of the land. They still receive bolts of cloth, albeit flimsy and plain, as verification that the treaty is still in force.

The Doctrine of Discovery, a European law of land seizure in the name of religion, is explained as the justification given by settlers who took the land away. According to the documentary, “It still applies to Indian people today and limits their authority, their sovereignty, and their property rights.” As the Onondaga Nations could not find justice through the United States Courts, they are shown pleading for their rights in Washington, DC at the Organization of American States Inter-American Commission of Human Rights. One sign reads, “Take the Doctrine of Discovery out of U.S. Law.”

Despite their environmental and legal issues, the documentary portrays the Onondaga Nation thriving. They have a school where youth learn to speak the language. Clips are shown of them making maple syrup and playing lacrosse.

Documentaries become history and fail to keep current with changes. Since this documentary was released in 2016, there has been a ruling of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (part of the regional organization The Organization of American States, or OAS). A press release notes (the same month this review is being written):

NEW YORK, July 6, 2023 ( - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has upheld the Onondaga Nation's right to pursue claims against the United States and New York State for the unjust taking of Indigenous lands two centuries ago without approval by the US Congress or governing authorities of the Onondaga Nation

The ruling was sent to U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken; responses from both the Onondaga Nation and the United States are due in four to six months.

This documentary is recommended for educators covering law, politics, religion, American history, and environmental studies. The author of this review was especially interested in the topic as her home and employer are on the dispossessed lands and waters of the Cayuga Nation of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Recently, Tompkins County, NY added signage to streets named Cayuga to the native language Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫˀ as a sign of respect. Additionally, contemporary historians now use the name Haudenosaunee instead of Iroquois. Classrooms can discuss the importance of such land acknowledgements and name changes to justice and healing as well as the importance of returning stewardship of lands and waters to the tribe.

Audience Choice Award, Syracuse Film Festival; Best Documentary Feature Film, Audience Choice Award, One Nation Film Festival; Honorable Mention, Wild & Scenic Film Festival; Silver Jury Prize, Social Justice Film Festival

Published and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. Anyone can use these reviews, so long as they comply with the terms of the license.