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Onondaga Lake – The Blue Eye of the Haudenosaunee Country

By Eglute Trinkauske
Hamilton College

People from the Onondaga Nation and members of NOON, Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation gathered in a circle at Onondaga Lake Park on Thanksgiving morning, November, 2008. Cool autumn sun illuminated the beauty of Onondaga Lake. Naked trees hugged oblong roundness of the lake, pondering their own images in its water. People in the circle took their time to say what they were thankful for. Most importantly, people who stood there honored the lake’s presence and its importance for the culture and the history of the Haudenosaunee peoples. For the Haudenosaunee people, Onondaga Lake is a part of the sacred geography that witnessed the creation of the Six Nations Confederacy. The Peacemaker Hiawatha traveled around the area of Onondaga Lake while delivering the message of peace.

As an indigenous Lithuanian living in upstate New York, I continue to see the world through my culture and through my language which is rich with poetic metaphors. My country has many lakes, and often people talk about the lakes as the eyes of the country, or as the eyes into a country’s soul. There are at least eight lakes in Lithuania named Akis, “an Eye.” This naming of lakes is rooted in indigenous ways of thinking and relating to the living landscape. For indigenous people, the earth is the largest living organism that exists, and the landscape is often seen in terms of a human body. To me, on Thanksgiving morning the lake certainly did not look like one of the most polluted bodies of water in the world. It looked like a beautiful lake, and it felt so good to be in its eye’s presence. Yet the poetic impression of the lake as an eye also invites an image of an infected eye, knowing that Onondaga Lake represents two very different cultures that oppose each other in their values and in their relationship to the landscape. As an eye, or as a window into a country’s soul, Onondaga Lake reflects the complex character of America as a split or double soul in its relationship to the natural world.

The current state of the lake’s chemical imbalance reflects American soul as a primarily consumerist society that has no respect for the natural world. Onondaga Lake itself, its physical and spiritual presence reflects America as a Turtle Island that miraculously grew in a watery environment and offered home to the first humans. I want to focus on the image of a lake as a healthy eye, a blue eye of the Haudenosaunee country. In its spirit, the thanksgiving gathering emphasized healing this split of America’s double soul. That morning Onondaga Lake brought people together to participate in the culture of gratitude that is indigenous to America. Gratitude is at the center of the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address which is like a prayer that extends thanks to all life and that which supports all life. As people were quietly gathering their thoughts and words of gratitude, one could see the ripples moving from the center into the outer edges of the lake. As an educator and a clanmother of the Onondaga Nation says: gratitude creates abundance. The Haudenosaunee give thanks to water because without water there would be no life, and no Thanksgiving abundance.

Thanksgiving gathering was an off-shoot of the Roots of Peacemaking events that centered on healing of Onondaga Lake. In my observation, these events have a ripple effect of expanding the awareness of the history of Onondaga Lake and its sacred status to the Haudenosaunee people. I think that each gathering like this at the eye of the Haudenosaunee country facilitates the lake’s healing and tips the scale’s of imbalance from “infected eye” to “blue eye.” Something good happens for the people, for the lake, and for the place when they spend the time eye-to-eye with a conscious intention of healing and a commitment to values that promote life.