Community Before There Was Ithaca
Some of the hallmarks of Ithaca culture are a slightly off-center quirkiness and a supportive community. But before present-day Ithaca came to be, indigenous groups had been shaping their community throughout the Finger Lakes for centuries.
The Goyogo̱hó:nǫ’ (Cayuga) Nation, the original primary inhabitants of what is now Ithaca, prioritized caring for elders and not only appreciated the natural world around them, but actively expressed gratitude for its life-sustaining offerings. Even with the passage of hundreds of years, the nation has preserved many cultural treasures.
“We give thanks for everything that we do, for everything that happens to us and for us, for the fish, the thunder, the wind,” explained Sachem Sam George of the Goyogo̱hó:nǫ’ (pronounced Guy-a-kono) Nation. Each act of gratitude is expressed through a ceremony. When the ice breaks each year, the Goyogo̱hó:nǫ’ hold a fish ceremony to give thanks for this resource. “And then,” said George, “we dance.”
Like many communities both past and present, the Goyogo̱hó:nǫ’ also came together for recreation. The game of snow snake is played by creating a long trough in the snow. Teams compete over several rounds to throw a wooden stick – a “snow snake” – the farthest down the trough, earning points for farthest and second farthest.
And the Goyogo̱hó:nǫ’ became part of a peaceful, democratic government when it was one of five nations which combined in the 12th century into the Haudenosaunee (meaning “People of the Longhouse”) Confederacy, by some accounts the longest standing democracy in the world.
The Goyogo̱hó:nǫ’ community has been tested in atrocious ways – by genocide, land theft, and neglect. During the Revolutionary War, General George Washington gave the order to Generals John Sullivan and James Clinton to destroy the villages of Haudenosaunee nations that had allied with the British. Many were killed, many fled to Fort Niagara, Ohio, or Buffalo, and later Canada, and some remained, hiding out in caves and other shelters.
After the Americans won the Revolutionary War, the new, cash-poor government gave away Haudenosaunee land to soldiers as payment for their service. The confederacy members who remained in the area brokered a peace treaty with the American government – the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua – which, in part, provided for the sovereignty of each Haudenosaunee nation within its lands. However, the State of New York ignored the treaty and sold Goyogo̱hó:nǫ’ land so that the nation was landless for hundreds of years.
Recently, more Goyogo̱hó:nǫ’ members have moved back to the area and the nation has come together again as a community with a common purpose: to start purchasing land that was stolen more than 200 years ago. The Goyogo̱hó:nǫ’ now tend the land on SHARE Farm in Union Springs, on the eastern banks of Cayuga Lake.
Despite the diaspora and the passage of time, they have managed to hold on to centuries-old traditions and share many of the same values. Members of the nation still come together seasonally to gather resources like strawberries, fish, and medicinal plants. They are stewards of the land and water, pushing against chemical use by local agriculture. “If you’re not being healthy with the land, it won’t treat you right,” said George.
And yes, they still play snow snake. They still value and take care of the elderly in their community. And as the weather gets colder, they are, as a group, making sure that all of their houses are winterized. “We all work together to try to help each other and try to make sure that those yet to be born will have a place to go,” said George.
That, really, is the most universal foundation of a strong community, and one that has been proven to stand the test of time.