Search Bar

Custom Search

search results

Friday, September 08, 2006

The Genundowa Autumn Light Festival on Canandaigua Lake
by Chuck

Canandaigua Lake lies nestled in the hills of Western New York State. It is the western most of the five Finger Lakes that stretch part way between Lake Ontario and the Pennsylvania border in Western New York. When I was growing up, the five largest lakes - Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca, Cayuga and Skaneateles - were known as the Finger Lakes despite the fact that there were other, smaller, slender lakes with a north - south orientation, in the vicinity. Today, I believe all of the lakes are called Finger Lakes.

While cience teachers in school described how these lakes were carved out by ancient glaciers, the local lore had it that, according to local Indian tradition, the lakes had been created at the beginning of time when the Great Spirit spread his fingers wide and left his palm print on the landscape with the five largest lakes being the imprint of his five fingers. Home of the five (later six when the Tuscora tribe joined,) nation confederation of Indian tribes - Seneca, Oneida, Onondaga, Oneida and Mohawk - the land is packed with history and legend.

As the land changed hands from Indians who hunted and farmed the land, to white settlers who cleared the land for farms to urban dwellers who circled the lakes with summer cottages, some of the legends and traditions survived and have been handed down from generation to generation. One of these traditions that had long been celebrated along Canandaigua Lake is the Seneca tribe's Autumn Festival of Lights Ceremony. Each year at the end of summer following the harvesting of the crops, the tribe held a celebration of Thanksgiving.

One part of the celebration involved lighting a large fire on top of Bare Hill after the sun had set and darkness enveloped the land. Bare Hill, which is shrouded in Seneca legend and tradition, is located on the east side of Canandaigua Lake. The Seneca village of Genundowa was located near Bare Hill and the lighting of the fire atop the hill was the responsibility of the village's tribal elders and Keepers of the Light. The large fire on Bare Hill could be seen from all around the lake and the lighting of this fire was a signal for villages around the lake to light their own, smaller fires, along the shores. Within minutes of the lighting of the fire on Bare Hill the lake was ringed with fires. The fires represented both a message of Thanksgiving to God for a good harvest as well as a ceremonial bonding of all of the native villages that ringed the lake.

Following the end of the American Revolution, settlers began to move into the area of Western New York and many of the Seneca moved to lands reserved for them in the 1794 Pickering Treaty which was signed on the site where the Ontario County Courthouse now stands in the City of Canandaigua. Among the traditions that stayed behind as the lands changed hands was the festival of lights. Over the years new variations entered. With the ringing of the lake with summer cottages in the early twentieth century, the festival became more of an end of summer recreation commemoration than a thanksgiving for a good harvest. My great aunt and uncle had a cottage on the east side of the lake near Bare Hill. During the 1960s, while growing up, we spent many Saturdays visiting them at their cottage. By that time phosphorous flares, the type that are commonly used for highway emergencies, had replaced individual fires and the festival was set for the Saturday of Labor Day weekend. I believe that even then, the event started with the lighting of a fire on Bare Hill. As children we would help my Father and Uncle place about a half dozen flares along the front yard facing the lake. At least one was always placed on the end of my Uncle's small wooden pier that extended into the lake. The fire on Bare Hill could not be seen from my Uncle's cottage but there was a specific time, honored by almost everyone along the lake, and when that time arrived you could see flares starting to be lit on both sides of the lake. My Uncle and my Father would light our flares and within a couple of minutes the entire lake would be ringed with red flares burning brightly. For the next five to ten minutes all eyes were on the sight of the red ring surrounding the lake and for those few minutes, just as the ancient Seneca had been linked by fire, the modern cottage dwellers were momentarily linked by the common fire both with the past and in community with their neighbors.

Today, my Aunt and Uncle have passed on, the cottage sold years ago and I live on the other side of the country and rarely visit the lake. But the tradition continues. Today the fire on Bare Hill is now lit by representatives of the Seneca nation and a new generation of cottage (now mostly year round residences) dwellers partakes in lining their lake front with flares which are lit following the lighting of the fire on Bare Hill. For a few minutes time stands still as the ancient Seneca festival is once again celebrated by those who dwell along the shores of this beautiful lake.

No comments: