Wednesday, August 08, 2007
By SEAN KIRST
Oren Lyons remembers it well. He was on one of his international trips,
talking about the environment to a group that included corporate executives.
Once Lyons gets rolling, he gets rolling, and the stories fall easily
into one another, and finally a baffled listener asked a question.
Lyons laughed quietly as he told that tale, hands on a cup of coffee
- decaffeinated now - that he sipped at the Coffee Pavilion in Hanover
Square. Lyons is a faithkeeper for the Onondaga Nation, whose people
go to sleep at night on a piece of land that never left their hands,
a piece of land that was never deeded to the United States or the British
or to anyone else.
What is Lyons' bottom line?
"I told him, 'You think in lines," Lyons
said. "We think
Answers like that are either profoundly wise or maddening, depending
on whether you agree with Lyons. They help explain why he has become
one of the most famous people in Central New York. Lyons considered John
Lennon a friend. When anthropologist Jane Goodall came to Syracuse, she
greeted him with a big hug. He speaks casually of conversations with
actor Jon Voight or guitarist Carlos Santana or author Peter Matthiessen.
Thursday, Lyons flew to Los Angeles for a screening of Leonardo DiCaprio's "The
11th Hour," an environmental documentary in which Lyons offers prominent
Even the message on Lyons' phone conveys that image of traveler-as-philosopher. "Gone
again," Lyons says on the machine. "Who knows where, or for
Yet that image might need some delicate retooling. For decades, when
you thought about the elders of Onondaga, you thought of men like the
late Leon Shenandoah, the former Tadodaho - or spiritual leader - of
the Six Nations.
Lyons, for his part, seemed to have a perpetual role as a younger, bemused
diplomat to the world beyond the nation. But Shenandoah died in 1996.
He is gone, as is Louis Farmer, as is Paul Waterman, as are many of the
gray-haired men who for so long formed the collective face of the Council
Now Lyons is 77, an elder himself. He is recovering - quickly - from
hip replacement surgery. And he finds a need, at this point in life,
to set a few priorities.
"I can see the end of the road clearly
right now," he said. "Years
are important, and you want to see what you can do."
One major goal, he said, is elevating the relationship between his people
and the immediate world around his nation. Yes, he still travels the
world to attend United Nations gatherings on indigenous peoples. He still
worries out loud about the environment and the ever-growing human population,
and he is especially passionate about the question of global warming.
But he will speak of issues closer to home when he offers a public address
at 4:30 p.m. Sunday in Hanover Square, as part of the "Honoring
the Haudenosaunee" celebration. There are certain things Lyons
would love to see in Syracuse. They begin, he said, with a simple revelation.
What he wants is a deeper community appreciation of the Onondagas for
their "history, instead of fighting about taxes."
That focus is shared by Irving Lyons, Oren's nephew, who is putting
together Sunday's festival. To Oren and Irving, it makes no sense that
Onondaga County tourism officials do very little with what is probably
the best-known historical event in the region: The birth of the Iroquois
Confederacy on the shoreline of Onondaga Lake, where the people of the
longhouse believe a tree of peace grew from a hole filled with discarded
Oren Lyons dreams of an environmental center alongside a lake recovering
from centuries of pollution and abuse. He dreams of a lakefront Haudenosaunee
museum. He dreams of Syracuse as a place that would attract indigenous
people from many countries for conferences and forums, which in itself
would become an opportunity.
"People around the world love
Indians," said Lyons, recalling
a European fascination with visits by the Iroquois Nationals, a lacrosse
team from the Six Nations. He sees the extraordinary kinship between
the Onondagas and greater Syracuse as a bond that we could market. He
speaks of a time when the city might fully remember why its lake is considered
a sacred place.
In that revelation alone, Lyons said, there would be a transformation.
Above his coffee, message sent, Lyons dropped into what he does best,
which is weaving together many stories. His extended family has been
wounded by alcoholism, and he remembers his own youthful days as a hard
drinker. "Nothing good really happens until you sober up," said
Lyons, who has stayed away from alcohol for many years.
That led into lessons learned during his days as a young artist in New
York City. He bought a house in New Jersey, he said, and for a while
he took a shot at leading a typical homeowner's life. Then he grew to
know a neighbor, a nice enough man who worked long hours to try to get
ahead. The neighbor spent the little bit of free time that he had "always
taking care of his house and always cutting his lawn and always taking
care of his flowers."
"One day I went by there," Lyons
said, "and there was
a wreath on the door."
The guy was dead from the stress. Lyons sold his house and went back
to Onondaga. The clan mothers asked him to be a faithkeeper, to serve
on the council of chiefs. Lyons hesitated. He did not know the Onondaga
language in the easy way of many elders. He told one clan mother, Rita
Peters, that he did not feel qualified enough to do the job.
the best you can," she replied.
Decades later, that is both his circle and his bottom line.