Chief Oren Lyons is a traditional Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan and a member of the Onondaga Indian Nation Council of Chiefs of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, or the Haudenosaunee (People of the Long House). He recently retired from the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he was a professor in American Studies and directed the Native American Studies Program.
Oren Lyons was born in 1930 and raised in the traditional lifeways of the Iroquois on the Seneca and Onondaga reservations in western and central New York State. After serving in the U.S. Army, he graduated in 1958 from the Syracuse University College of Fine Arts. He then pursued a career in commercial art in New York City, becoming the Art and Planning Director of Norcross Greeting Cards. He has exhibited his own paintings widely and is noted as an American Indian artist. Since his return to Onondaga in 1970, Chief Lyons has been a leading advocate for American Indian causes. He is recognized internationally as an eloquent and respected spokesperson on behalf of Native peoples and is a sought after speaker on topics as broadranging as American Indian traditions, Indian law and history, human rights, environmental issues and interfaith dialogue. He has received numerous honors and awards, including the Honorary Doctor of Law from Syracuse University. To mark the Columbus Quincentenary in 1992, he published Exiled in the Land of the Free (co-edited with John Mohawk), a major study of American Indians and democracy. In 1982 Chief Lyons helped to establish the Working Group on Indigenous Populations, an advisory body to the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Commission and has been an active member in the Working Group. He serves on the Executive Committee of the Global Forum of Spiritual and Parliamentary Leaders on Human Survival and is a principal figure in the Traditional Circle of Indian Elders, an annual council of traditional grassroots leadership of the major Indian nations of North America. In 1990 he received the Ellis Island Congressional Medal of Honor and, that summer, was a negotiator between the Mohawk Indians and the governments of Canada, Quebec and New York State in the crisis at Oka.
On April 16, 1991 Chief Lyons led a delegation of 17 American Indian leaders who met with President Bush in Washington. Later that same year, he was the subject of a one-hour PBS television documentary. In 1992 he organized a delegation of the Iroquois Confederacy to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro and was invited by Maurice Strong, Secretary General of UNCED, to address the national delegations. A lifelong lacrosse player, Oren Lyons was a collegiate All-American in the sport (invented by the Iroquois), and the Syracuse University team had an undefeated season during his graduating year. He is currently Honorary Chairman of the Iroquois National Lacrosse Team, which in 1990, at the World Games in Perth, Australia, became the first Indigenous national team in any sport to compete against the national teams of recognized nation states (such as the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and Australia). In 1993 he was elected to the Lacrosse National Hall of Fame.