You’ll find it almost everywhere you turn — on T-shirts, bumper stickers, magnets and all types of tourist trinkets — the three words: “Ithaca is gorges.”
After all, who doesn’t love a good pun? Ithaca, New York, is gorgeous, peppered with steep gorges (get it?), plunging waterfalls, and a tapestry of tree-covered mountains that turn vibrant shades of yellow, orange and red when the leaves change in the fall. If you can time your visit just right, at the peak of “leaf peeping” season, it is a wonder to behold.
A four-hour drive from New York City, Ithaca is located in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York — named for the 11 finger-shaped lakes, spread over some 9,000 square miles. Over the years, the area has garnered a progressive and often eccentric reputation; Ithaca even had its own currency, one of the longest-running community currencies in the United States.
But there’s more to this part of the country than one might expect when you travel here. Beyond the natural beauty and peaceful, unassuming small towns lives a rich history that was — and still is, in many ways — ahead of its time.
To understand this area is to realize who was first on this land, and that is the Haudenosaunee. Also referred to as the Six Nations, the Haudenosaunee are made up of six Native American nations: Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora.
Now on land defined as “territories” by the United States — such as the Onondaga Nation territory, a 7,300-acre area just south of the city of Syracuse in central New York — the Haudenosaunee (which means “people of the longhouse“) have shaped not just the region, but the entire country in fundamental ways, from democracy to women’s rights.
“By the time Europeans made contact with the Haudenosaunee, there was a long-established, sophisticated political and social system that united the territories of the six nations,” says Louise Herne (Wakerakats:te), condoled Bear Clan Mother of the Kanienkehaka (Mohawk).
“This structure has lasted through time because we abide by natural law, and the universal wisdom in our processes is that we don’t sidestep the mother,” she tells CNN. In Haudenosaunee culture, women are the decision-makers. “The women are the foundation, and the men are the walls and the roof. Neither can exist without one another. It’s about balance.”
Known as the Great Law of Peace, warring nation members were brought together and united to form the Haudenosaunee Confederacy between 1570 and 1600. It is considered one of if not the oldest examples of a formal democracy. It is that foundation which is believed to have inspired the Founding Fathers and democracy in the US, including the Constitution itself — with one fundamental difference.
“When our Peacemaker came along and established the Great Law of Peace, he didn’t dismiss the women. He didn’t dismiss the mothers,” Herne says. “Actually, he built the framework of democracy upon the foundation of women. And that was his brilliance.”
A champion of women’s rights
With a foundation like that, it’s not difficult to see why the Finger Lakes region became the birthplace of the charge for women’s voting rights in the United States — which began in Seneca Falls, New York, in July 1848.
Women would not gain the right to vote until 1920. Today, one century later, the area remains not only a beacon for those seeking freedom of thought and expression, but for nurturing it in those who were born here, like Matilda Joslyn Gage.
Gage, a powerhouse in the early struggle for women’s rights, was born in 1826 in Cicero, some 60 miles north of Ithaca. She spent 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, executive director and founder of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Center. Wagner, a pioneer of women’s studies in her own right, turned Gage’s home into an interactive museum.
But while names like Susan B. Anthony are still remembered for their contributions to the long fight for women’s rights in the United States, Gage’s name is largely forgotten — although they worked side-by-side. Uncompromising and committed to a full freedom for women that went beyond the vote, she was ultimately left out of the history books.
“She says, ‘there will be no permanent peace until there is absolute equality for every group, men and women, Black and White, Native-born and American, rich and poor.’ That’s it,” Wagner tells CNN.
Wagner credits Gage’s revolutionary vision to the Haudenosaunee and the culture of not only including women but elevating them.
“[Gage] saw it in action! That’s the wonder of it,” Wagner says. “She lived in Haudenosaunee territory, and she saw a world that was the mirror opposite of her own. Culturally, government-wise, spiritually — in which there is absolute balance and harmony.”
“The goal is to maintain that,” Wagner adds. “And that is her vision.”
Welcome to the ‘EcoVillage’
A few miles from downtown Ithaca, a housing community nestled among the trees has also taken the Haudenosaunee ethos to heart.
“There’s a very rich history here of community and social conscience. And some of it comes from the indigenous people,” says Liz Walker, co-founder of the Ithaca EcoVillage. “There was a very strong history in the Haudenosaunee of making decisions together.”
Among the strong sense of community is also a commitment to sustainable living. Comprised of three neighborhoods and roughly 100 homes, the village utilizes elements such as solar power and insulated one-foot-thick walls, helping to cut down on heating costs during Ithaca’s robust winters. One study found the ecological footprint of EcoVillage residents to be 70% less than typical Americans.
“I would say we are really striving for an alternative that makes sense,” Walker tells CNN. “We believe in participatory governance and what that means is everybody has a stake in the decisions, and we expect our neighbors to take part in making decisions and doing the work of the community.”
The term “cohousing” originated in Denmark, with a cluster of private homes around a shared common area and outdoor space. Established in 1991, EcoVillage Ithaca is one of the first such communities in the United States.
“It’s like living in an extended family where you know everybody, and you may have an uncle that you don’t like so much — but you still celebrate his birthday,” Walker says. Disagreements, she adds, pop up from time to time and are handled as a community.
In addition to homes, there are also some local businesses. Graham Ottoson lives and works in the EcoVillage, running Gourdlandia, a shop and garden that focuses on — you guessed it — gourds. Crafting the uniquely shaped fruit into everything from lamps to necklaces, Ottoson found a welcoming home for her artistic passion.
“I came here because it is a progressive area,” she says, adding that “people crave community.”
“I like the phrase ‘intentional community’ — people move here with the intention of being part of a community,” Ottoson says. “It’s a self-selected group of people who want to be particularly neighborly.”
While society has certainly changed in the three decades since the community began, Walker says the core values have remained: “There is a continuation of the spirit of activism, of caring about the planet and of caring about each other.”
Eating at the Moosewood
A connection to nature has always existed here as a pillar of the Haudenosaunee, who consider themselves “stewards of Mother Earth,” says Herne. So perhaps it’s no surprise that one of the earliest examples of the farm-to-table movement found a natural home in the Finger Lakes.
And today, while the area might be more well known for its robust wine region, it’s Moosewood, a vegan and vegetarian restaurant, that first helped put the area on the map in the 1970s when hippies came in search of their own sense of community.
“I think the Ithaca area always attracted people who were into some alternative way of being,” says David Hirsch, co-owner of the Moosewood restaurant since 1976. “So many of us came here from bigger cities; we didn’t want that urban, busy, frantic sort of life. And there was a ‘back to the land’ movement.”
The restaurant is actually a “collective,” made up of 19 members — 14 women and five men, including Hirsch — who together own and operate the restaurant, and write cookbooks.
Committed to vegetarian food, Moosewood has operated this way since it first opened in 1973, a radical idea for its time.
“It was odd. It was different,” says Winnie Stein, another Moosewood co-owner. “There weren’t many restaurants who were focused on vegetarian cuisine or buying from farmers directly.”
“I think now that we see the impact of what our work has done,” she adds. “We are considered one of the pioneers for farm-to-table. And we are still excited. We’re still young at heart.”