Syracuse Post Standard
Onondaga Lake, its waters gray and restless in a September drizzle, spread out in front of Tom Porter Tuesday as he told a story. Porter is a Mohawk Indian, and he was explaining what he knows about the Mohawk hairstyle to a crowd that included Jane Goodall, the renowned scientist.
Many young Americans use that hairstyle to express rebellious individuality. But the real meaning, Porter said, more closely involves despair. He said an old man told him the tale when Porter was a child at Akwesasne, the Mohawk territory to the north.
Porter recalled how the old man said Iroquois men and women always believed their hair was a spiritual message given at birth as “a stamp from the Creator.” The longer you wore your hair, the old man said, the closer you were to the divine.
But the Creator also rejected killing and bloodshed, which meant there was no blessing for going into war. The old man said that Mohawk men, when they prepared for battle, would shave off all their hair except one stripe in the middle. In that fashion, Porter said, “they could not take the creator with them” as they committed acts to violate their reverence for life.
For that reason, Porter said, he does not like to see young people Iroquois or not wearing their hair in that style today. It was a story that offered a new way of seeing the familiar, the quiet theme for much of what happened Tuesday at the lake.
The gathering, held near the Salt Museum at Onondaga Lake Park, was called “The Roots of Peacemaking.” The many sponsors included Syracuse University and the State University College of Environmental Science and Forestry. The reason it came together was profoundly simple: Phillip Arnold, an associate professor in SU’s department of religion, learned Goodall was coming to Syracuse to offer an academic lecture.
He called and asked if the famed primatologist and peace activist, who did groundbreaking studies on communities of wild chimpanzees, would also participate in a ceremony on the lakefront with the Onondagas. Goodall didn’t just agree. She changed her entire schedule to stay in Syracuse for an extra day.
She stayed because she appreciates basic truths that are often forgotten, close to home. The Onondagas are one of the last Indian nations to use their original form of government. They live on a piece of land that has never left their hands.
And the Onondaga Lake shoreline is the birthplace of both their longhouse beliefs and the Iroquois Confederacy the place where the Iroquois Peacemaker gathered five warring nations and had them bury their weapons beneath a tree of peace.
Around Syracuse, the lake hardly retains such reverence. The combination of industrial poisons and human waste has turned it into one of the most polluted bodies of water in the world. The fact that it is “sacred yet filthy,” Goodall said, “is so symbolic of things today in the world.”
So Goodall, a 72-year-old woman with a remarkably young face, kissed a leaf on a maple tree planted by the Onondagas to commemorate the day. She stood behind the dais and offered a hooting greeting to the delighted crowd in the way of a wild chimpanzee, just before the wind swept a paper holding her notes into the air and Goodall, quick as a cat, reached out and caught it.
In her speech, she closely reflected the thinking of many Onondaga leaders. She spoke of a material culture that has grown out of control. She talked about the cruelties inflicted on livestock in factory farms. She spoke of a greater human mission that is “not just about making money; it’s about reaching out to those who have less than you do.”
And she showed an understanding for the meaning of Onondaga Lake.
While the birth of the confederacy is often forgotten in Syracuse, it is easily the most historically significant event associated with our region. Considering that, it would seem as if there ought to be some beautiful and striking memorial to signify that meaning.
Goodall realized only one tribute could do the job: “This lake this filthy, dirty, still-polluted lake can be cleaned,” she said.
That same point was made by Goodall’s old friend, Onondaga faithkeeper Oren Lyons. It was also made by Porter, and by Onondaga faithkeeper Wendy Gonyea, and by the Onondaga children who threw handfuls of dirt into the hole during the planting of the tree.
In the end, the collective message was both practical, and a prophecy: This community will never rise to what it was until we finally make peace with our lake.
Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Post-Standard. His columns appear Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Call him at 470-6015 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his blog and forum at www.syracuse.com/kirst or write to him in care of The Post-Standard, Clinton Square, Syracuse 13221..