New York’s Finger Lakes: The area that helped encourage American democracy

(CNN) – You can find it almost everywhere you turn – on T-shirts, bumper stickers, magnets, and all kinds of tourist trinkets – the three words, “Ithaca is a gorge.”

Who doesn’t love a good play on words? Ithaca, New York is beautiful, peppered with steep canyons (got it?), Plunging waterfalls, and a tapestry of tree-covered mountains that take on vivid yellows, oranges, and reds as the autumn leaves change. If you can schedule your visit at just the right time, it is a wonder to see it.

“Leaf Peepers” record the fall foliage in New York State.


Ithaca is a four-hour drive from New York City in the Finger Lakes region of New York State – named after the 11 finger-shaped lakes that extend over an area of ​​around 14,000 square kilometers. Over the years the area has gained a progressive and often eccentric reputation. Ithaca even had its own currency, one of the longest-running common currencies in the United States.But there is more to this part of the country than one might expect when traveling here. Beyond the natural beauty and the peaceful, humble small towns lives a rich history that was and is in many ways ahead of its time.

Haudenosaunee legacy

To understand this area one has to recognize who was first on this land, and that is the Haudenosaunee. The Haudenosaunee, also known as the Six Nations, consists of six Indian nations: Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora.Now on land defined as “Territories” by the United States – such as the territory of the Onondaga Nation, a 7,300 acre area south of the city of Syracuse in central New York – the Haudenosaunee (meaning “People of the Longhouse”) have fundamentally shaped not only the region, but the entire country, from democracy to women’s rights.A traditional Haudenosaunee longhouse in the Finger Lakes area of ​​New York State.

A traditional Haudenosaunee longhouse in the Finger Lakes area of ​​New York State.


“When the Europeans first made contact with the Haudenosaunee, there was a long-established, highly developed political and social system that united the territories of the six nations,” says Louise Herne (Wakerakats: te), approved mother of the Kanienkehaka (Mohawk ).

“This structure lasts over time because we adhere to natural law, and the common wisdom in our processes is that we don’t evade the mother,” she told CNN. In the Haudenosaunee culture, women are the decision makers. “The women are the foundation, and the men are the walls and the roof. No one can exist without each other. It’s about balance.”

Known as the great law of peace, the warring nation’s members were brought together between 1570 and 1600 to form the Haudenosaunee Confederation. It is considered one of the oldest examples of formal democracy. It is this foundation that is believed to have inspired the Founding Fathers and democracy in the United States, including the Constitution itself – with one fundamental difference.

“When our peacemaker came and drew up the Great Peace Law, he did not dismiss the women. He did not dismiss the mothers,” says Herne. “In fact, he built the framework of democracy on the basis of women. And that was his brilliance.”

An advocate for women’s rights

Matilda Joslyn Gage is one of the pioneers of the women's rights movement.

Matilda Joslyn Gage is one of the pioneers of the women’s rights movement.


With such a foundation, it’s not difficult to understand why the Finger Lakes area became the birthplace of the women’s suffrage charge in the United States – which began in Seneca Falls, New York, in July 1848.Women would not get the right to vote until 1920. Today, a century later, the area remains a beacon not only for those looking for freedom of thought and expression, but also for those who were born here, like Matilda Joslyn Gage.

A powerhouse in the early struggle for women’s rights, Gage was born in Cicero, about 60 miles north of Ithaca, in 1826. She lived much of her life in a white two-story house in nearby Fayetteville.

“This house is not, ‘this is where she slept. This is where she ate.’ It’s a house of ideas, “says Sally Roesch Wagner, managing director and founder of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Center. Wagner, herself a pioneer in women’s studies, turned Gage’s home into an interactive museum.The American suffragist and writer Matilda Joslyn Gage.

The American suffragist and writer Matilda Joslyn Gage.

Library of Congress / Corbis / Getty Images

But while names like Susan B. Anthony are still remembered for her contributions to the long struggle for women’s rights in the United States, Gage’s name is largely forgotten – despite working side by side. Uncompromising and committed to full freedom for women beyond voting, she was ultimately banned from the history books.

“She says, ‘There will be no lasting peace until there is absolute equality for every group, men and women, black and white, natives and Americans, rich and poor.’ That’s it, “Wagner told CNN.

Wagner attributes Gage’s revolutionary vision to the Haudenosaunee and the culture of not only including women but promoting them.

“”[Gage] saw it in action! That’s the miracle, “says Wagner.” She lived in the area of ​​the Haudenosaunee and saw a world that was the mirror of her own. Cultural, governmental, spiritual – in which there is absolute balance and harmony. “

“The goal is to keep that up,” adds Wagner. “And that’s your vision.”

Welcome to the ‘EcoVillage’

Travel along New York State’s back streets to discover free spirits, alternative communities, and an iconic restaurant that is ahead of its time.

A few miles from downtown Ithaca, a tree-lined community sharing community has taken the Haudenosaunee ethos to heart.

“There is a very rich history of community and social conscience here. Some of that is indigenous,” says Liz Walker, co-founder of the Ithaca EcoVillage. “In the Haudenosaunee there was a very strong story of making decisions together.”The strong sense of community also includes commitment to a sustainable life. The village, made up of three districts and around 100 houses, uses elements such as solar energy and insulated walls one meter thick to reduce heating costs in Ithaca’s tough winters. One study found that the ecological footprint of EcoVillage residents is 70% less than that of typical Americans.

“I would say we are really looking for an alternative that makes sense,” Walker told CNN. “We believe in participatory governance and that means everyone is involved in the decisions and we expect our neighbors to participate in the decisions and the work of the community.”

The term “living together” originally comes from Denmark, with a cluster of private houses around a common area and an outdoor area. EcoVillage Ithaca was founded in 1991 and is one of the first such communities in the United States.The EcoVillage in Ithaca, New York was founded in 1991.

The EcoVillage in Ithaca, New York was founded in 1991.


“It’s like living in a big family where you know everyone and maybe have an uncle you don’t like that much – but you still celebrate your birthday,” says Walker. Disagreements, she adds, arise from time to time and are treated as a community.

In addition to houses, there are also some local businesses. Graham Ottoson lives and works at EcoVillage and runs Gourdlandia, a shop and garden that – you guessed it – pumpkins take center stage. Ottoson processed the uniquely shaped fruits into lamps and necklaces and found an inviting home for her artistic passion.

“I came here because it’s an advanced area,” she says, adding, “people crave community.”

“I like the phrase ‘deliberate community’ – people move here to be part of a community,” says Ottoson. “It is a self-selected group of people who want to be particularly neighborly.”

While society has certainly changed in the three decades since the fellowship began, Walker said the core values ​​have remained: “There is a continuation of the spirit of activism, caring for the planet and caring for one another.”

Eating out at Moosewood

The legendary Moosewood Restaurant in downtown Ithaca, New York.

The legendary Moosewood Restaurant in downtown Ithaca, New York.


A connection to nature has always existed here as a pillar of the Haudenosaunee, who consider themselves the “stewards of mother earth”, says Herne. So it may come as no surprise that one of the earliest examples of the farm-to-table movement has found a natural home in the finger lakes.

And today, while the area is perhaps better known for its rugged wine region, it’s Moosewood, a vegan and vegetarian restaurant that first helped put the area on the map in the 1970s when Hippies In Search came after their own sense of community.

“I think the Ithaca area has always attracted people who have been interested in a different way of being,” says David Hirsch, co-owner of Moosewood restaurant since 1976. “So many of us came here from bigger cities; we didn’t want that.” urban, busy, hectic life. And there was a “back in the country” movement. “

The restaurant is actually a “collective” of 19 members – 14 women and five men including Hirsch – who together own and run the restaurant and write cookbooks.

CNN’s Richard Quest tries his hand at making cheese with a new generation of artisans.

Moosewood has been devoted to vegetarian food since it opened in 1973 and is a radical idea for its time.

“It was weird. It was different,” says Winnie Stein, another co-owner of Moosewood. “There weren’t many restaurants that focused on vegetarian cuisine or bought direct from farmers.”

“I think now that we are seeing the effects of our work,” she adds. “We’re considered one of the pioneers in farm-to-table. And we’re still excited. We’re still young at heart.”

CNN’s Robert Howell contributed to this story.

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