Onondaga was once called The Salt Lake due to salt springs bubbling up by it. Brackish lake waters nursed abundant fish and waterfowl, with unique species such as Onondaga Whitefish. Salmon migrated from deep sea to spawn in the lake.
In ancient time, dim in human memory, a man, born of a virgin, appeared on Onondaga Lake in a white stone boat. At the shore, he announced he was a Messenger sent by Creator to end war and killing. Hiawatha, an Onondaga, became the Peacemaker's spokesman. Together, they taught all people the Path of Peace. At Onondaga Lake, Peacemaker and Hiawatha united Five Nations in a Confederacy, symbolized by The Tree of Peace. Onondaga Nation is the heart of this Confederacy, keeper of the-fire-that-never-dies.
In 1788, Onondaga Nation signed The Salt Treaty allowing New York State joint use of the Salt Lake to make salt. In 1793, New York forced a second treaty on the Nation taking more land away. A 1795 treaty took the Salt Lake from the Nation.
Syracuse, the Salt City, grew south of the lake. Forests clearcut, swamps drained, limestone mined. Silt choked the lake. Salt industry slurries piled by the lake. City sewage floated on the lake. Garbage heaped by the lake. Industrial chemicals, heavy metals and mercury dumped in the lake. Swimming and fishing were banned.
In the 1970s, environmental awareness emerged. A new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cited Onondaga Lake among America's most polluted lakes. Scientists studying the lake declared it nearly dead—devoid of life—water so dense and murky, a diver's hand is unseen six inches from his face. Large areas of lake bottom are toxic waste sites.
In 1975, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled New York State violated federal laws making treaties taking land from Oneida Nation while U.S. government neglected treaty-sworn duties to protect the Five Nations from just such actions. The Oneida Land Claim set legal principles for an Onondaga Claim.
Valentine’s Day 1990, the new Onondaga Lake Commission members met in Syracuse; its six members are the U.S. Senator, U.S. Congressman, New York Governor, Onondaga County Executive, and Syracuse Mayor, U.S. EPA, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Governor Cuomo declared, "we will use the same kind of technology that flew a man to the moon in one decade to clean up Onondaga Lake."
July 1990, The Salt Treaty between Onondaga Nation and New York State expired. Everyone expects the Nation to assert its land claim and insist on the restoration of The Salt Lake.