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.
“Look,” he said to Lyons, “what’s your bottom line?”
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 in circles.”
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 narrative.
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 how long.”
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 of Chiefs.
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 weapons.
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.
“Do the best you can,” she replied.
Decades later, that is both his circle and his bottom line.