ONONDAGA NATION — The cicadas return with no regard for subtlety.
Their trill vibrates through the thick woods that cover much of the Onondaga Nation, sounding to those who welcome them like a natural symphony and registering in other ears as something akin to a muffled car alarm.
These days, they are inescapable: thwapping into windshields, sneaking into a diner stowed away in customers’ collars. In a clearing off one of the Native American nation’s swervy roads, cicadas dot tree branches, cling to leaves and flit around in the afternoon sun.
“One just flew right on me,” Sid Hill Jr., 7, called out to his mother as he ran around collecting cicadas on a recent afternoon. It took only a few minutes for him to nearly fill a freezer bag. He popped one into his mouth, its wings still flapping. The others would be cooked later.
Eating cicadas — some, like Sid, eat them live, but they are often sautéed in butter with a pinch of salt or maybe garlic — follows from an Onondaga tradition, which is renewed with the insect’s arrival every 17 years. Many Onondaga people believe that the cicadas emerge from the earth bringing with them an opportunity to rekindle a relationship with the lush nature that surrounds them and with their ancestors whose survival was not guaranteed.
“It’s unimaginable what they went through for us to be here,” said Betty Lyons, Sid’s mother and an activist for indigenous communities.
The Onondaga people have a history etched with stories of perilous trials and resilience, from confronting settlers and missionaries centuries ago to more recently quarreling with local school officials. A territory that had once stretched across New York has been reduced to a postage stamp of land outside Syracuse. Still, they are here. And their land remains sovereign.
“That’s one thing they have never been able to do,” Lyons said. “Destroy us.”
The cicadas’ return has been interwoven with one of those stories of perseverance, this one passed down over many generations and as old as the United States. Their crops had been scorched, their villages had been pillaged. The cicadas came out, and the Onondaga ate them to survive. In recent weeks, some have been eating the insects again.
Alf Jacques, 69, has had at least one every cicada season, though he suggests eating more than one at a time. “It’s better if you have a good mouthful,” he said. “They’re like potato chips.”
The taste may not be all that revolting (though this squeamish reporter would not know). But the tradition has endured largely because it has been a means to share with the next generation an ordeal that has been seared into the nation’s consciousness.
In 1779, George Washington ordered the scorched earth campaign against the Onondaga in response to conflicts between the Indians and the settlers and soldiers who were fanning farther out across the state. The devastation still reverberates. Every U.S. president from Washington forward has been called Hanadagáyas — destroyer of villages. And while soldiers are no longer threatening to set their land ablaze, the Onondaga still believe they have reason to be wary.
“You can see what’s happening in the world now,” Lyons said. “You don’t have to look far.”
The Onondaga have a level of sovereignty unique among Native American communities. They do not accept grant money from the federal and state governments. They do not vote, even though it leaves them with little clout with the local school district. (Last year, they pulled their children from school in protest over their contention that officials disregarded their input, including one failed effort for an Onondaga teacher to be named principal of the Nation School.) They travel with their own passports (or attempt to, running into problems getting other countries to accept their documents).
They are part of the Haudenosaunee, otherwise known as the Iroquois Confederacy (some reject the name, which the French had assigned to them). Some scholars believe the confederacy served as a model for the forefathers who crafted the U.S. government. Their culture also influenced leaders of the suffragist movement; it is a matrilineal society, in which children’s identities are passed down from the mother. Men serve as chief, but it is the nation’s matriarchs who select him.
The nation once stretched from Pennsylvania to Canada in central New York. Now, their territory has fewer than 1,000 residents and consists of about 7,300 acres, with roads wandering through woods specked with modest family homes. The nation supports itself with businesses, including a smoke shop and a diner, Firekeepers, that see a constant churn of customers pulling off the nearby highway. Ask people on the nation about the cicadas, and almost all will recite the history that has been taught to them. Sid talked about the killed crops, and at Firekeepers, a waitress noted that the Onondaga were targeted because they served as the capital of the Haudenosaunee confederacy. And as the nation’s lacrosse team, the Redhawks, played a team from Rochester, Jacques said the tradition was also a way to acknowledge the benevolence of the natural world, offering sustenance as they struggled to survive.
“The creator provided,” Jacques said. “The creator always provides for us. We never ask the creator for anything because he’s already given us everything we need to survive.”
He also said he prefers his cicadas cooked in salt and garlic.
Some have compared the taste of a cicada to popcorn, bacon, even crab. The cicadas are often referred to as locusts, given the biblical proportions of their swarms, but they are not. The insects have black bodies, bulging rust-colored eyes, clear wings and legs that have been known to get stuck in teeth.
Sandra Bigtree ate a cicada the last time they had emerged, and she did not particularly care for it. Her twin sons were 6 at the time, and she said they ate a dozen of them in one sitting. “We told them this was a meaningful experience,” said Bigtree, a founding board member of the Indigenous Values Initiative.
On a warm afternoon, just after school, Sid ran through the clearing and poked around the edges of the woods, his plastic bag rustling with a growing collection of cicadas. He is the only one at school who will eat them live, and he seems to enjoy eliciting a chorus of “eww’s” from his classmates.
“My little adventurer,” his mother said. “This guy would play with them all day.”
He dashed over to hug his father, Sidney Hill, the tadodaho, or traditional leader of the nation.
The cicadas’ symphony kept playing into the afternoon, the woods their concert hall. The sound is a mating call the males perform during the heat of the day. But to Hill, it represented something more as his son, now at an age where he can start to understand his heritage, zoomed around him.
“It just refreshes our memories,” he said. “Every generation hears that, and it reminds them.”
The tadodaho had instructed his son to cup his hands behind his ears and listen. The reminder was impossible to ignore.
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