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Saturday, September 01, 2012

Genundowa Autumn Ring of Fire Around Canandaigua Lake

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.
Looking North from Southern Tip of
Canandaigua Lake
(Photo Copyright © 2012 by Chuck Nugent)
The five Finger Lakes consist of Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca, Cayuga and Skaneateles.

While science tells us that these lakes were carved out by ancient glaciers, the local Indian lore told how 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,) tribe Iroquois Confederation - Seneca, Oneida, Onondaga, Oneida and Mohawk  with the Tuscora tribe joining later bringing the confederation members to six - the land is packed with history and legend.

While the Finger Lake area has undergone substantial changes in the two plus centuries since the entire area around Canandaigua Lake was home to the Seneca tribe, their presence is still felt on the land.

Of course the Seneca tribe still exists with its government and many members living nearby on their Cattaraugus Reservation in the southwestern corner of New York State.  Many others live off the reservation and can be found scattered throughout their ancient homeland and beyond.

  Grapes ready for Harvest in Vineyard in hills above
Canandaigua Lake
 (Photo Copyright © 2012 by Chuck Nugent)

In addition to the Seneca people themselves, the landscape of western New York is dotted with towns and places bearing Seneca names, while memorials and markers also dot the landscape in remembrance of their past.

Then there are the legends and traditions that the tribe and popular folklore keep alive in the area.

One of these traditions that has long been celebrated along Canandaigua Lake is the Seneca tribe's Genundowa Autumn Ring of Fire 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. 

These 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.

 White Settlers Replace Seneca After Revolution

 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. 

Ontario County Courthouse in Canandaigua, NY
With Rock Marking Site of Signing 1794 Pickering Treaty
between United States & Seneca Nation
 (Photo Copyright © 2012 by Chuck Nugent)

Among the traditions that stayed behind as the land around the lake changed hands was the festival of lights. Over the years new variations entered.  Beginning in the early twentieth century, summer cottages were built around the lake where Seneca villages and camps had once been located.

Despite the changes, the festival was adopted by the new comers who substituted emergency road flares for the camp fires.  Instead the yellow glow of camp fires, the lake today is ringed with the red glow of these phosphorous flares.  

There have been other changes as well.  The festival is now held on the Saturday before Labor Day and for the new comers the festival marks the end of the summer season on the lake.  

 Public Beach along East Lake Rd. on Canandaigua Lake
 (Photo Copyright © 2012 by Chuck Nugent)

 Members of Seneca Tribe Returning to Participate in Festival

In recent years increasing numbers of the Seneca tribe have been returning for the festival and taking a more active role in reminding people of its origins.

In a way the Genundowa festival is still a celebration in which people give thanks to God.  While today's cottage owners and visitors, both Indian and non-Indian are mostly urban dwellers who no longer grow their own food.  

While the Seneca of long ago came together for this festival to thank God for a good harvest, today's participants also come together to thank God, not for a good harvest, but thankful for the opportunity to have enjoyed this beautiful for the past summer.

I left New York State years ago to seek my fortune elsewhere.  But I still retain fond memories of childhood summers spent on the shores of Canandaigua Lake and the annual tradition of the lighting of the flares around the lake on Saturday of Labor Day weekend each year.

My Great-Uncle's former cottage on East Side of Lake
(Photo Copyright © 2012 by Chuck Nugent)

While many things have changed in the intervening years, the annual Genundowa Festival of Lights continues and, if only 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.

NOTE:  This is a re-write of an earlier account of the Genundowa Festival of Lights that was published on this blog on September 8, 2006 and can be found by clicking here:  The Genundowa Autumn Light Festival on Canandaigua Lake

Links to My Other Articles about Canandaigua Lake: 

Account, with Photos, of a Trip Around Canandaigua Lake 

A Canandaigua Mother's Candle Still Burns in Window Awaitin Son's Return for World War I 

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