07 November 2012

The Legend of Agayentah

My father is a graduate of a small liberal arts men's college called Hobart College, located on Seneca Lake in upstate New York. When I was a little girl, I used to sit on his lap and play with his class ring. It was one of those chunky gold affairs with embossed sides and a shiny purple stone in the middle. I loved the ring, and I turned it over and over, trying it on and spinning it on my finger.

On one side of the ring was the engraved profile of a Native American man in a feathered headdress. Time after time, I asked my dad who the man was, and time after time he replied, "That's Agayentah."  (The name is pronounced Oggie-YEN-tah. I loved the way it sounded, and I repeated it over and over again.)

My dad loved to tell the story. According to Hobart legend, Agayentah, a great Seneca warrior, sought shelter in a thunderstorm under a tree beside Seneca Lake. He was struck and killed by a bolt of lightning, and he and the tree were swept into the lake. From time to time, his ghost appears to Hobart students, paddling on the lake, inspiring them and impressing them with the bravery and greatness of the Seneca Nation. He remains an inspirational symbol to Hobart students to this day.

Many, many years have gone by since my dad last told me the story of Agayentah, and I probably would have forgotten it completely.  But last weekend, my college-applicant daughter and I found ourselves in Geneva, New York, visiting Hobart (or, more precisely, its companion women's college, William Smith). We took a campus tour on Sunday, and when we walked into the lobby of the gymnasium, there he was. A bronze bust of Agayentah. I knew him immediately by the proud curve of his nose, his strong chin, and the feathers trailing the nape of his neck. I had stumbled on an old friend.

My daughter, on the other hand, had stumbled on new friends. She spent the night with a William Smith student while I hunkered down at a hotel by the lake. I took a little jog along the waterfront right before the wind and rain started in earnest. The sky, thickly padded with clouds, warned of an approaching hurricane. I scanned the horizon for Agayentah, but I could not see him. I reasoned that, as a great warrior and seasoned canoeist, Agayentah would know better than to paddle these waters in this kind of weather. He would take shelter. He would stay put until the worst had passed.

I couldn't find a good picture of Agayentah, but here's the wind picking up on the shore of Seneca Lake.

We were to drive home on Monday morning, but by the time breakfast rolled around, it was obvious to me that we were going nowhere. The New York Thruway and Route 17 south through Ithaca would be treacherous if not impassable in this sort of storm. Following Agayentah's advice, which was ringing in my head, we waited it out for a second night. We had dinner in the hotel's little restaurant, where we could look out the rattling windows and see the churning waves and the swirling clouds. We slept soundly, despite the weather, and on Tuesday morning, after the worst of it had passed, we drove home.

As you know by now, the devastation wrought on New York City by Hurricane Sandy was profound. A week later, many of my neighbors still lack power; our local schools were closed for a week, and the shelters in Newark and Paterson (large nearby cities in New Jersey) are packed to capacity. We do not yet know the fate of my parents' house at the beach, as we have not been able to get there to inspect it. I suspect the damage will be marked.

It turns out that my daughter loved Hobart and William Smith and the friendly students there. I loved the gray lake, the wide lawns, and the cold wind. I don't know where my daughter will end up going to college, but we could do much worse than to send her to study under the watchful eye of an old, old friend.

Thanks to the Phantoms and Monsters blog and Delvina Smith, HWS '09, for refreshing my memory about the legend of Agayentah. And thanks of course to my dad for giving me the memory in the first place.

1 comment:

jhl said...

I love this legend.

So glad that you were safe, under the watchful eye and spirit of an old friend.