Indian Time - A Voice from the Eastern Door

The Cicadas' return reminds Onondaga of a story of survival


Every seventeen years, the cicadas return to the Onondaga Nation, a legendary reminder of the past and a crunchy taste of the future. If you're ever in Onondaga when they emerge from the safety of the earth, they can be found everywhere and heard just as loudly. They dot the tree branches or can be seen flying around everywhere, often making a splash on your vehicle's windshield. More or less, they are unavoidable.

After spending 17 years underground feeding on tree roots the cicadas emerge from the earth, arriving with the opportunity to rekindle their Onondaga's relationship with nature as well as a reminder of their often fragile, but always steady, existence. In a territory that once stretched south to Pennsylvania and north to Canada, Onondaga, like all Haudenosaunee territories have been reduced to just a few scant miles for a growing population.

Marked by resistance and persistence, Onondaga remains 'sovereign' in the true sense of the word; not accepting federal or state government funding nor voting in elections.

Resistance, resilience, persistence, perseverance, these are all words to describe Onondaga's history to this day. Using the word "resourceful" is more exacting, given their existence during the late 1700's.

During General George Washington's (later to become President George Washington) 'Scorched Earth Campaign' against Onondaga, Washington targeted their longhouses, their gardens and caches of stored food burning them to the ground. Left with little to nothing to eat, the cicada emerged from the earth, providing the Onondagas the nourishment they needed to survive.

The youngest and oldest of Onondagans can be found eating them raw, but most cicadas will be gathered and sautéed with butter and garlic. There is no getting around the texture – crunchy. Neither is escaping how the Onondagas existence today can be traced back to 1779 and what was once a survival meal has turned into a tradition; a reminder to the next generation of an ordeal that has been branded into the nation's consciousness.

According to an Onondaga elder, "The Creator provided. The Creator always provides for us. We never ask the Creator for anything, because he's already given us everything we need to survive."

But the insect that once provided nourishment to the Onondaga survival is on the brink of extinction itself. For this first time, scientists wonder if this group of insects will eventually be pushed to extinction. One major culprit could be climate change, although not the kind of climate change you're probably thinking of.

This batch of cicadas, which scientists call Brood VII, were once found in 10 counties stretching across the Finger Lakes. By 1967, that had shrunk to just three counties, and in 2001, the last time the cicadas emerged, their only confirmed appearance was in southern Onondaga County.

Their populations are heaviest on and near the Onondaga Nation, where the cicadas are commonly referred to as locusts. According to Cornell University's entomology professor, Cole Gilbert, this limited batch of cicadas, first recorded in 1797, could disappear.

Theorized - the real culprit is climate change. Not the human-induced climate change that is warming the earth today, but the natural climate warming that happened 9,000 to 5,000 years ago, known as the Hypsithermal Interval.

During that warm period, periodical cicadas might have gradually crept northward. When the climate cooled again, cicadas who had moved to Upstate New York found themselves out in the cold, living farther north and facing harsher winters than the other 14 broods of periodical cicadas in the U.S.

Periodical cicadas, because of their long life cycle and their brief window of breeding just once every 17 years, have a hard time rebuilding a population after a decline. While a warmer climate now would help them, the cicadas could be playing decades or centuries of catch-up.

This past week, the cicadas' symphony kept playing, the woods their concert hall. The sound is a mating call the males perform during the heat of the day. Their sound refreshes their memories and every generation that hears it will remind them too.


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