Syracuse Post-Standard Columnist
As part of doing business, Lloyd Withers often entertains visiting executives. Once they arrive in Central New York, he said, they routinely ask whether the region had any special role in history.
Withers has a quick answer. He explains the deep ties between Syracuse and the Onondaga Nation. He explains how five warring Indian nations became the Iroquois Confederacy on the shoreline of Onondaga Lake. He explains how the people of the longhouse believe their Peacemaker buried the tools of battle beneath a lakefront tree of peace.
The corporate guests, impressed, often wonder out loud if there is a place where visitors can better understand that heritage.
It doesn’t exist, Withers tells them. There is no well-known touchstone near the lake that fully commemorates the birth of a confederacy known around the world. For years, Withers said, that absence ate at him. He saw an obvious answer to the problem, an answer that would put an international spotlight on Syracuse.
Not long ago, over dinner with his wife, Withers, 47, decided to try to make it happen.
He started a campaign to give back a piece of lakefront land to the Onondagas.
“I asked myself, ‘Is there something I can do to help us make a progressive, informed change?’ ” said Withers, chief executive officer of PCI Paper Conversions Inc. of DeWitt, which employs about 250 workers. “I thought maybe it would actually be possible to start changing people’s minds about the best use of these lands.”
Joe Heath, lawyer for the Onondagas, said it is encouraging to see a corporate leader “coming to that conclusion.” Heath is deeply involved in a court action that maintains the Onondagas are legitimate owners of thousands upon thousands of aboriginal acres, taken through what the Onondagas say were broken treaties.
Within that vast area, Heath said, some places have primary importance.
“Clearly, since I’ve known (the Onondagas), one of the things they’ve talked about, one of the things that would mean the most to them, is getting back significant land along the lake and Onondaga Creek,” he said.
Oren Lyons, an Onondaga faithkeeper, spoke of that dream in an interview a few weeks ago. He described it as an opportunity to bring travelers from around the world to Syracuse, and to transform the image of a heavily polluted lake.
In 1999, behind the same reasoning, Onondaga leaders signed an agreement with the Metropolitan Development Association that called for long-term development of an environmental center and museum on the shoreline.
“That’s very much alive,” said Irwin Davis, president of the MDA. He said he recently met with several Onondaga chiefs to discuss the agreement, and to “familiarize some of the younger chiefs” with the concept. The idea, Davis said, still has “tremendous potential, and we look forward to hearing from the Onondagas.”
Withers, to get it rolling, calls for giving up the land.
He emphasized that he has no suggestion for how the area ought to be used. The Onondagas view the lake as a kind of natural Jerusalem, as a critical place in their history and system of beliefs. Out of simple respect, Withers said, they deserve permanent access to the water.
What they do with it, he said, should be completely up to them.
His appreciation for the Onondagas began as a child. Withers said his maternal grandfather, who lived in Maryland, was fascinated with the Iroquois and their deep Upstate heritage. Withers said his paternal grandfather played almost 90 years ago on the first interscholastic lacrosse team ever formed at the old Central High School.
“If you love lacrosse and you want to know its history, you can’t help but wanting to learn more about the Onondagas,” Withers said.
Now he speaks of a permanent Onondaga presence on the lakefront as evidence of “a progressive community” in Syracuse. His campaign continues at Thursday’s “Roots of Peacemaking” gathering at Onondaga Lake Park. The celebration, whose sponsors include Syracuse University, features native speakers. It is intended to bridge the same historical chasm that motivates Withers, who will set up a table at the park.
He plans to hand out information while lining up allies for his “Onondaga Shoreline Heritage Restoration.” The goal, he said, is persuading the county Legislature to deed back some shoreline to the Onondagas. Toward that purpose, until the November election, he hopes to stay in touch with the candidates for county executive.
As for the best piece of land to give away, Withers has what he says is an appropriate spot. He uses the word “embarrassment” to describe Ste. Marie among the Iroquois, the county-owned interpretative center that portrays a 17th century French mission on the lake. Withers sees it as classic civic myopia. He believes that land should be used to honor a deeper and enduring historical connection.
To Withers, to find the essence of the lake, just say its name.
Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Post-Standard. His columns appear Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays..