Oren Lyons settled in, over breakfast, to think about the zip line. The new "MistRider" attraction formally opens today on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. Riders dangle from an elevated line while descending into the river gorge, in open air, at speeds approaching 40 mph. For those who buy a ticket, managers promise “spectacular views” of both the American and Horseshoe Falls.
To Lyons, the real question is: How clearly will they see?
At 86, he is a faithkeeper with the Onondaga Nation, the “firekeepers” – or the traditional capital – of the Haudenosaunee, or Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. Lyons also has deep ties to Western New York: He was born on Seneca territory. For decades, he taught at the University at Buffalo.
In his late 80s, Lyons has turned into an international figure, a Six Nations emissary, a global voice for indigenous issues. He seems to know everyone. Lyons was a friend to John Lennon. When anthropologist Jane Goodall sees him, she greets him with an embrace. At the funeral of Muhammad Ali, Lyons was among the handful of speakers who offered eulogies.
Plug his name into YouTube, and you’ll find him in dozens upon dozens of videos – including a recent one, filmed for the United Nations General Assembly, in which he walks a desert road through Monument Valley while calling for an international commitment to sustainability, to communion, to rolling back global warming.
With the Onondagas, his title essentially captures and defines his duties. His task as faithkeeper is remembering and sharing stories that become the framework for a way of life. The mission is making sure the core of an ancient system of belief is passed along, intact and fresh, to new generations.
At Niagara, then, his biggest question about the zip line is the same challenge that he would offer about all the attractions surrounding the gorge, all the helicopters and casinos and wax museums: The priority, to Lyons, should always be the true essence of the falls. The Onondagas, unlike some Six Nations governments, oppose casino gambling.
“I go up there, and they have no idea what it is,” Lyons said, referring to many visitors to Niagara, and to those who build around it. “They cover it with their red, white and blue lights, and they think they’re dressing it up, but it can never change.”
Another Upstate column from Sean Kirst: Farewell to Diane Muench, born with Down syndrome, human rights pioneer
To the traditional people of the Six Nations, Lyons said, Niagara is a living and indescribably important natural monument, home of the “thunder beings” and birthplace of medicine – a word that to Lyons equates to healing, recovery, communion. In a time when too many people in the world endure suffocating droughts, Lyons speaks of Niagara as a miracle, as a great lake that endlessly falls over a cliff.
He speaks of it as an absolute symbol of life, a feeling you take from that charged air, from the sweet scent of fresh water, from the hypnotizing beauty as the river glides over the brink.
Lyons sat last week in a little diner near Onondaga. He still has the face of a much younger man, but his back has been bothering him, and he limped as as he walked in. It hardly slows him down. In his late 80s, he feels a sense of controlled urgency: Lyons does not speak of history but instead describes each moment in time as “a continuation,” an instant when you turn your head and “look both ways” at the future and the past.
The great stories, to him, hold true in both directions. The imperative is to share them while you can.
The falls, for instance: There is a commercial version of “The Maid of the Mist,” a tale of Niagara that is told to many tourists. The version Lyons heard since childhood, from Six Nations elders in the longhouse, is a little different, and he offered a few elements. In ancient times, he said, a young native woman fell asleep in a field, and a snake entered her body as she slept, and made her poisonous. Three times she married. Three times, her husbands died.
“In her despair she said, ‘Obviously, there’s something wrong with me, and the best thing to do is get rid of myself,’” Lyons said. The young woman chose to cast herself over the falls. Yet the thunder beings were there – their voices, Lyons said, still echo throughout the region – and they saved her, brought her into their sanctuary behind the veil of water, caused the snake to be removed and cast aside.
“They took her around, they showed her the plants, the medicine,” Lyons said. They taught her the mysteries of healing, and they gave her a choice: She could stay with them, or she “could go back as an ordinary person,” trained in the pioneering ways of medicine but with no memory of the spirits at the falls.
There was only one risk: She must never pound or hammer anything, because it would bring lightning – and that force would again carry her behind the falls.
Eventually, inevitably, Lyons said, the lightning happened: The young woman was pounding cornmeal, and the action caused a flash that returned her to the thunder beings. Lyons, as a young man, was an artist. He made a painting many years ago of the scene behind the falls, and he declined to say exactly how the tale played out, whether she stayed behind the veil or brought her knowledge of healing to the world.
“It’s an Indian story,” he said, “and Indian stories have different endings.”
Maybe the last chapter in this tale - whether her lessons were embraced - is still waiting to be told. Lyons often speaks with concern of how there are 7.4 billion people in the world, a number expected to reach 11 billion by the year 2100. He described the growing struggle, internationally, with water shortages, a crisis borne out by a simple Google search: California is going dry. A drought in the Mediterranean is judged as the worst there in 900 years.
But in the Northeast, Lyons said, we live with a green miracle we hardly appreciate: The Great Lakes represent one-fifth of the surface fresh water on the entire planet.
Another Upstate column from Sean Kirst: After Orlando, flying the flag for love and freedom
All of that comes together in Niagara, an unending explosion of mist, rainbow and thunder. To Lyons, fresh water is healing, the ultimate medicine. Every child feels that sense of staggering awe on a first visit to the falls, and all Lyons asks is that the wonder of the place – that miracle of water - is never lost amid all the objects and destinations that go up around it.
Oren Lyons video: 'Our future starts now.'
“Human beings want to imprint on everything,” Lyons said. “We need to be respectful of these sacred places, not only here but around the world. People want to move away from nature, to be separate from nature, but you can never really separate yourself.”
Go to the falls at dawn – when the sun is rising, when the roar overwhelms the morning silence – and you understand his point.
Another Upstate column from Sean Kirst: In the face of unspeakable tragedy, a family chooses happiness
Lyons mentioned a moment of great importance in his life, how he became a great-grandfather this month. His great-granddaughter’s name, in Onondaga, means: “She brings the fire.” Lyons spoke quietly of the infant, with love and reverence. He is deeply moved by her name, both for the lyrical beauty of the language and for the philosophy.
Sore back or not, he brings that same fire, himself. The essential tragedy in the world, he said - the cause of so much suffering - is a lack of appreciation, of awe, of true respect. He sees it in the desperate plight of too many children, all but abandoned in the streets, and he sees it in drought, in famine, in deprivation.
As for the zip line, he offers this gentle challenge and reminder for its riders: The greatest meaning, the true wonder, always starts with the view.
“The whole idea of healing comes from the falls, and the falls is what it is, regardless of what gets built around it,” Lyons said. “My hope is that people will always see it.”
- Sean Kirst is a contributing columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Story topics: Sean Kirst