Stage of Nations ECOfest celebrates a feeling of connectedness

Two women dance at the Stage of Nations ECOfest. (Michael Davis/Syracuse New Times)

Syracuse isn’t shy when it comes to boasting its annual summertime street fairs. From the New York State Blues Festival that draws thousands of music fans to the more than 200,000 who flock to Taste of Syracuse, the city has cemented its knack for celebrating.

But there’s another annual downtown festival whose smaller size shouldn’t be cause to underestimate it: the Stage of Nations Blue Rain ECOfest.

“I don’t need to be flashy,” said Irving Lyons, co-producer of the festival. “I just want to be representative of who we truly are,”

The event celebrates Haudenosaunee and the comprising Six Nations’ culture, with music, food, crafts and performances. A stage is set up for music acts throughout the two-day event, as showgoers can bring chairs or find places to sit along the Hanover Square fountain area.

ECOfest dancers in traditional Native American and Haudenosaunee dress.

Traditional dance highlights the annual Stage of Nations Blue Rain ECOfest in Hanover Square. (Michael Davis/Syracuse New Times)

One of the biggest draws is the smoke dance competition, where more than 100 will showcase quick steps and complex movements to different drum beats. The dance is derived from a traditional war dance, but changed over time to be more of a social element.

ECOfest began in 2003 after Lyons noticed the Haudenosaunee flag missing from the city’s flagpole. Then-Syracuse Mayor Matt Driscoll agreed to add it, but Lyons said he felt more needed to be done.

“When I saw that the flag was missing, I said we need something so that our people can feel good and that they’re included in this community as well,” Lyons said.

“You can’t turn left or right in this city without seeing the influence of our culture. Even the names of the streets: Hiawatha Boulevard, Onondaga, I could keep going on. I think people don’t always put that together.”

This is the ECOfest’s 10th year as an annual event at downtown’s Hanover Square. The festival has been folded into the city’s Arts Week celebrations, nestled between the Arts & Crafts Festival along East Onondaga Street near Columbus Circle and the Northeast Jazz & Wine Festival on Clinton Square.

The ECOfest draws several hundred visitors every year, which is sizable for Hanover Square; the audience can usually be seen spilling out into nearby streets. The fest is also a grassroots operation, organized by a team of four: Lyons handles the fundraising; his cousin and co-producer Rex Lyons takes care of the music; Larry Luttinger of CNY Jazz acts as the fiscal administrator; and Wenji Shenandoah coordinates the vendors and dancers. A small group of volunteers also helps during the event.

But that intimate setting is what makes the ECOfest special, according to Lyons. The square, with its handful of trees and greenspaces, turns into a tiny village for two days, as people come together to learn about a different culture and experience a new point of view.

A young child looks on at the ECOfest. (Michael Davis/Syracuse New Times)

The festival, as suggested by its name, has a strong theme of promoting eco-friendly habits. It also introduces fairgoers to the Seventh Generation Principle, a philosophy that states decisions made today should result in a more sustainable world seven generations from now.

“For two days, we’ll present our philosophies out there, but in a very gentle, subtle way,” Lyons said. “We just want to share our ideas, and it’s up to you. Everyone has a choice, but we’re all in this together.”

That sense of unity permeates the celebrations, and it’s the reason Lyons continues to produce the festival. The feeling of connectedness manifests literally during the round dance, when the public gets invited to join with the performers hand-in-hand to dance together.

“That’s what makes me do this every year, when you see people from all ages, ethnicities and genders holding hands in unity sharing in peace and friendship,” Lyons said. “It’s very powerful to see people in our town and in our cities holding hands. That’s what we need.”


Friday, July 27

  • 6 p.m.: Opening Ceremony
  • 6:15 p.m.: Traditional Dance
  • 7:15 p.m.: Loren Barrigar
  • 8:30 p.m.: Edgar Pagan and his All-Star Band

Saturday, July 28

  • Noon: Easy Ramblers
  • 1:30 p.m.: Traditional Dance
  • 3 p.m.: Liam Alone
  • 4:30 p.m.: Traditional Singers and Dancers
  • 5:30 p.m.: Smoke Dance Competition
  • 7 p.m.: Deaf Poets
  • 8:30 p.m.: The Ripcords
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