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Viewpoints: Celebrating Native American heritage

By Heidi Bamford

If you didn’t already know it, November is Native American Heritage Month. It is a relatively new celebration, formally proclaimed by the federal government in 1990. The irony is twofold: first, that it coincides with the very month in which most people exhibit their highest level of misunderstanding of Native American culture and, second, that it is one of the newest heritage celebrations in recognition of the oldest culture to exist on this continent.

The way these resolutions are framed often makes it difficult to discern just who is responsible for seeing the festivities get underway: government agencies are encouraged to offer programs and opportunities to learn about the different cultures being celebrated, while the groups themselves are expected to offer programs to share with the rest of us their special foods, traditions, crafts and way of life to foster a better understanding.

Iroquois Confederacy

So, what have we really learned about Native American heritage in the last 26 years since this proclamation was made? Probably not much more than what has been discovered over the last 500 years.

Most people living in Western New York are aware of the existence of the Seneca Nation. The Senecas are, in fact, one of six nations that make up what has been referred to as the Iroquois Confederacy. More recently, many of the native nations have begun using their ancestral name for identification.

So, the Seneca are also referred to as the Onondowahgah or People of the Great Hill. Together with the Cayuga (Guyohkohnyoh, or People of the Swamp), Onondaga (Onundagaono, or People of the Hill), Oneida (Onayotekaono, or People of the Standing Stone), Mohawk (Kanien’kehaka, or People of the Flint Place) – and the later addition of the Tuscarora (Skarureh, or Shirt Wearing People), these six nations make up the Haudenosaunee, or People of the Longhouse.

The long bark house is a metaphor for the Six Nations Confederacy, symbolically living together under one roof of their shared ancestral history and territory, from east to west, which is essentially all of New York State today. The Mohawks are the keepers of the eastern door, the Senecas are the keepers of the western door, the Onondagas are the fire keepers and the Oneidas, Cayugas and Tuscaroras are the younger brothers.

A unique worldview

What European settlers failed to take into account in the past and what non-native people often do today is overlook the fact that Native American culture is non-Western. The native nations here and elsewhere across the continent have their own unique worldviews that are quite distinct from a European-based worldview, and that vary in some ways from nation to nation. The Haudenosaunee worldview is predicated on the idea that the human and natural worlds are interrelated and that all nature is sacred.

In contrast, the Western or European worldview is premised on an acceptance of cultural evolution, or a successive higher order of development over time, in which the human is the highest order, but that a hierarchy also exists within that order, placing white people at the very pinnacle. The Western worldview has also historically portrayed a distrust and fear of nature and a sort of requisite mandate to “overcome” or “tame” it. The Haudenosaunee worldview is both a civic and social code of conduct that has been maintained throughout its history and into the present.

A key source to understanding this worldview is to look at the Haudenosaunee thanksgiving address, also called Gano:nyok or “the words before all else.” This is not the same “thanksgiving address” among the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag that took place at Plymouth, Mass., in 1621 that became the impetus for the whole turkey, dressing and football tradition.

This is a prayer that is said every day by many Native Americans and is also said before social and ceremonial gatherings. It is a form of expression defining the Native American understanding of the relation between creator and each of the “elements” contained in the cycle of life. It expresses human kinship with the rest of the natural world and defines specific duties and responsibilities for each element of the natural world – water, trees, plants, stars, animals, birds and even humans. The extraordinary feature of this address is that it expresses appreciation for and equality of all world elements. Everything is separate and equal and different!

The Three Sisters

Another misconception, and one we often learn as children in the history classroom, is that encounters between Native Americans and Europeans were reactive, not interactive. Non-native understandings of the past rest on the assumption that after the Europeans came to the Western Hemisphere and ultimately “vanquished” the native nations that their cultures ceased to exist. Native American culture has been altered by the context of European contact, not destroyed by it.

The ability to harvest food and sustain life from the earth is as critical to Haudenosaunee culture as it was in the past, only in a different context. The importance placed on growing crops such as corn, beans and squash (“The Three Sisters”) indicates a strong agricultural lifestyle, contrary to the “hunter-gatherer” concept that many non-native people surmise was the condition of life prior to the American colonial period.

The beliefs embodied in the thanksgiving address, as well as the everyday hunting and farming lifestyle of the Haudenosaunee, impacted their social organization and system of land ownership and use, which was communal rather than based on private ownership.
Into the 1800s, American colonists maintained a posture of being in competition with the Indians for land and resources. The native perception of land ownership and cultivation was considered to be uncivilized, barbaric and unprofitable. It was the fervent hope of Americans that the native people would eventually “settle down” and adopt the white way of farming and living.

Great Law of Peace

According to Haudenosaunee oral tradition, the Great Law of Peace came about when the five nations were at war and threatening to destroy each other. A peacemaker by the name of Hayo’wetha, more commonly known as Hiawatha, was able to help resolve the violent conflict by encouraging the nations to create the confederacy. He used the symbol of a single arrow easily broken versus a band of five arrows that could not be broken to signify the strength in unity. This very symbol was used by Benjamin Franklin years later as the colonists were debating whether to break from Britain and if they would do it as one nation or as separate nations. The band of arrows continue to be represented in U.S. symbols to this day.

It is often suggested that the governance system of the Haudenosaunee had an impact on America’s early leaders in shaping their new national government. Just as our system delegates certain powers to individual states and reserves other powers to the national government, in the Haudenosaunee Confederacy there is autonomy for each nation. Each nation has its own chiefs and clan mothers, but when it comes to matters that impact the entire confederacy, they meet and act as one at the Grand Council.

The one major difference between the two systems is that the Haudenosaunee established a central role for women in their governance while the U.S. system took almost 150 years to give women an even marginal role in the political decision making system.
Wampum Treaty

Finally, the Haudenosaunee firmly believe in the idea of separate, equally respected cultures living side by side. The two-row wampum was first presented to the Dutch traders who came to what is now New York State, seeking access to the Native American fur trade. The Guswenta, or Two-Row Wampum Treaty of 1613, was understood to be the basis for all subsequent treaties made by the Seneca with other Europeans. The two purple rows represent the two groups: the Europeans and the Seneca, both traveling down the river in their own canoes, side by side in peace and friendship, but neither attempting to upset the canoe of the other. As we know, this has not been the manner of the relationship between the groups throughout much of history.

Haudenosaunee use of wampum as reminders of speeches, promises and obligations has been in existence since before European contact. Originally, wampum beads were made from the purple and white insides of quahog clam shells and whelk shells.

Fight for sovereignty

Chief Red Jacket, a respected Seneca orator and negotiator, helped secure territory for the Senecas in New York State after the Revolutionary War. In 1819, he rejected the Buffalo Creek Treaty, stating: “Brothers … You have come for a different purpose than the one expected. Your coming is to tell us of our situation; to tell us about our reservations; to tell us the opinion of the president that we must change our old customs for new ones …”

Today, the Haudenosaunee still have to fight to retain their sovereignty and to preserve the elements of their culture that are central to their lives. Further challenges to their culture and sovereignty have appeared in legal battles in U.S. courts over fishing rights and water use; New York State Thruway and land easements; land use and ownership issues over the Kinzua Dam, City of Salamanca and New York Power Authority; and issues related to taxes and sovereignty.

In Federal Power Commission v. Tuscarora Indian Nation in 1960, the Supreme Court ruled the government was authorized to take lands owned by the tribe through eminent domain for a hydroelectric power project.

Justice Hugo Black, who wrote the dissenting opinion, stated: “… It may be hard for us to understand why these Indians cling so tenaciously to their lands and traditional tribal way of life. The record does not leave the impression that the lands of their reservation are the most fertile, the landscape the most beautiful or their homes the most splendid specimens of architecture. But this is their home – their ancestral home. There, they, their children and their forebears were born. They, too, have their memories and their loves. … I regret that this court is tobe the governmental agency that breaks faith with this dependent people. Great nations, like great men, should keep their word.”

Nearby resources

I am not Native American, nor do I profess to know all there is about local Native American culture and history. What I have done is to explore and reflect on all I have learned through many different sources, including scholarly and primary resources, historic sites and Native American people. In the spirit of Heritage Month and in light of recent events, such as the Dakota Access Pipeline, I think we should all try to learn more about the Native Americans who live among us.

To discover more of the rich and vibrant culture of the Haudenosaunee, visit Ganondagan, a state historic site and living history of the Seneca and Haudenosaunee in Victor; the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum in Salamanca; or the Rochester Museum & Science Center’s exhibit, “At the Western Door.”

Heidi Bamford is outreach and member services coordinator for the Western New York Library Resources Council.

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