Onondaga was once called The Salt Lake due to ancient ocean salts bubbling up in springs near its southeast shore. Brackish waters nursed abundant fish and waterfowl, with unique species such as Onondaga Whitefish. Salmon migrated from deep sea to spawn in the lake. Small round pools nestled amid limestone ledges and cliffs offered unusual ecological niches to nurture unique biological communities.
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, The Peacemaker, Jikohnsaseh 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, New York State presented its first treaty—The Salt Treaty—to Onondaga Nation to allow salt mining from the springs. In 1793, New York forced a second treaty on the Nation taking more land away. A 1795 treaty took the Salt Lake away from the Nation—an illegal fiction that persisted until 1975.
Syracuse, the Salt City, grew south of the lake. Forests clearcut, swamps drained, limestone mined. Silt choked the lake. Salt industry slurries puddled on the lakeshore. 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 as America's most polluted lake. 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 six members of the new Onondaga Lake Commission met in Syracuse: U.S. Senator, U.S. Congressman, New York Governor, Onondaga County Executive, Syracuse Mayor, U.S. EPA, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Governor Cuomo declared, "the same technology and know-how that flew man to the moon in one decade, we will use to clean up Onondaga Lake."
July 1990, The Salt Treaty between Onondaga Nation and New York State expired. In March 2005, the Nation, in a lawsuit in federal court, asserted its rights as titleholder to insist on a complete restoration of The Salt Lake.