Faithkeeper Oren Lyons delivers dire warning of mass extinction


Despite the explosive growth of the human population in the last 70 years, the human species, among others, faces the threat of mass extinction. 

Oren Lyons, faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of Onondaga Nation and member of the Onondaga and Seneca nations of the Iroquois Haudenosaunee Confederacy, delivered his lecture on the first official Haudenosaunee Confederacy Day on Tuesday, July 5, in the Hall of Philosophy. 

Lyons’ lecture, titled “Nature is in Charge of All Life,” warned the audience of a grim future if humans do not quickly change consumption habits. 

Lyons, who is 92 years old, holds wisdom beyond his years. He serves on the Grand Council of Chiefs of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy of Haudenosaunee and is professor emeritus at SUNY Buffalo, where he served as professor of American studies and director of the Native American Studies Program. He has a doctorate of laws from Syracuse University, where Lyons Hall is named in his honor. 

Lyons is also an accomplished artist, author, environmentalist and global presenter. He holds the title of wisdom keeper, is a leading voice at the United Nations’ Permanent Forum on Human Rights for Indigenous Peoples and has amassed a great number of prestigious awards, including the Green Cross International Environmental Icon Award and the United Nations NGO World Peace Prize.

“The opportunity to address you at this time is important for several reasons, but the main (reason is) the welfare of the Earth itself,” Lyons said. 

Lyons pointed to the grandfather trees that surround the Hall of Philosophy. He said they are listening to what humans say and do. 

“We are a part of nature, always have been and, hopefully, always will be,” Lyons said. “We are in mortal danger at this point … and we have nobody to blame but ourselves.”

In 1950, there were 2.5 billion people on Earth. In 2022, the population is quickly approaching 8 billion.

“In our lifetime, (we) tripled the population of the world. Tripled,” Lyons said. “That (impacts) the carrying capacity, that means water, that means land, where you live and (your) responsibility to generations, your children, your grandchildren.”

Reflecting on his past, Lyons looked back on things he has had to learn the hard way through experience and responsibility. 

“I was asked by my clan mother some years back if I would take a position with her on the local Council of Chiefs,” Lyons said. “And that’s a position of responsibility and service. Service for 24 hours a day for the rest of your life.”

Lyons was encouraged to take some time to think about his decision. He weighed his options for a year, as he was working as an art director in New York City. 

“I was asked to come back to the Onondaga Nation and serve the people. And it was a hard decision,” Lyons said. “I was moving strong. I was a good artist. No doubt about it. I was making my way.” 

Beyond being immersed in the artistic life of New York, Lyons also felt underqualified for the role. He felt as though he didn’t “command the language like I should.” But his clan mother encouraged him to take a leap of faith, and Lyons accepted the challenge. 

Relocating from downtown Manhattan to Onondaga Nation was difficult for Lyons, as he grappled with learning about his own traditions while broadening his perspective on the council. 

“But I did take the responsibility. It’s been an education for me. It’s given me such a broader perspective on life,” Lyons said. “And it’s carried me around the world. I’ve been everywhere except two countries. One is China and the other India. But the rest, I’ve been to every country in this world, carrying the work of the Haudenosaunee, our people.”

Lyons has learned that all humans are closely related, despite any physical differences they might possess. 

“We’re like dogs — we come in all colors and sizes, all kinds of shapes,” Lyons said. “And you can (donate and receive) blood; you can’t get any closer than that. Just reflect on that. At some point you may require some blood, and somebody of a very different color than you can save your life.”

Despite humans’ inherent belonging in nature and their similarities to one another, something appears to have been lost. And now, Lyons said seven generations are in peril. 

“This is it. We aren’t going to get a second chance with this one,” Lyons said. “My message: We are in serious, serious trouble as a species, and we are close to extinction. If we’re so smart, and we’re so brilliant, how come we’re close to extinction? Where’s our brains? Where’s our smarts?”

With Lyons’ concern of overpopulation, he made note of the risks of depleting resources that provide life to humans and other species. 

There will not be “enough water, not enough land and certainly not enough equity. That disparity between rich and poor is so huge,” Lyons said.

Because affluent people are known to frequent Chautauqua Institution, Lyons called upon them to take responsibility and action toward paving the way of a better future.

“You have influence beyond most people. No doubt about that. And it is collective work. In our system, the more you have, the more you share,” Lyons said. “What can we do? That’s a question I’m putting to you, because it’s going to take all of us. It’s going to take every one of us who are here to collectively put our minds together and see what we can do for this coming generation.”

Advising the audience, Lyons said that he understands how much they have been through and how much wisdom they have acquired over the years. He advised them to share their wealth of wisdom by starting with teaching their families to direct the youth toward a good life. 

Lyons shared that there are over 574 Indian Nations in America in 2022; but most Americans are vastly unaware of how many Indigenous people coexist in the same country as them. This can be attributed to the near extinction of Indigenous history in school curriculums. 

“And the mission of the Haudenosaunee is contrary to what you see in the history books,” Lyons said. “(There is) very little about Indians in the history books, because it’s hard to take land from a good guy.”

Lyons confessed that he didn’t come to Chautauqua to provide an answer to the crippling issues humanity is facing. His goal is to bring people into a broader perspective of the Earth to find a solution. 

Speaking on democracy, Lyons advised audience members to pick good leaders who will be helpful to the Earth and nature as a whole.

In Native American culture, “democracies depend on women,” Lyons said. “We have a matrilineal system (from) 1,600 years ago. So then the structure will be the men and women working together for the common good. So the clan, the family, the large extended family are (led) by the clan mother. And she would choose among the men of her clan the leader that she wanted.”

To vote someone onto the Chief’s Council, all members of the clan must come to a consensus. 

“It takes a lot,” Lyons said. “It takes patience. But by the time you make your decision, you have a consensus. That’s solid. You’re all agreed. So you move forward.”

With this matriarchal system in mind, Lyons called for women to rise up and take action. 

“The women are going to stand up, and the women always have to take care of the men. Men have always been a problem. You know that as well as I do,” Lyons said. “They’re stronger than we are, you know? They outlive us every time. They’re strong. So now is the time for the women to speak up.”

Returning to the massive population crisis and imminent catastrophe at hand, Lyons called for the audience to deeply reflect.

“My message to you is: How do we face this huge crisis we are in? And think about that, because you’re not going to come to an answer sitting down. You’re going to have to reflect,” Lyons said. “You have the experience to know what to do. I’m asking you to step up to your responsibility. Put your toys away. This is serious business now.”

He advised the audience to reject stagnation, and instead act.

“Don’t just go home and say, ‘There is a pretty good talk.’ No. Let’s get something out of it,” Lyons said. “I’m really asking (about) your experience, your life. You’ve been out there. You know what it takes. And you are leaders. You’re leaders, so let’s coalesce. Let’s get together here and figure it out.”

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The author Alyssa Bump

Alyssa Bump is a life-long Western New Yorker, but this is her first season on the grounds of Chautauqua. She is eager to recap the Interfaith Lecture Series while broadening her perspective of the human experience. Alyssa is a senior at SUNY Fredonia, majoring in journalism and public relations with a minor in professional writing. As editor-in-chief of her college newspaper, The Leader, Alyssa focuses on becoming a compelling storyteller and an innovative leader.