By Wendy Gonyea
We are the Haudenosaunee, meaning “People of the Longhouse.” Newcomers to this land called us the Five Nations or the Iroquois. We are the descendants of an ancient Confederation born on the shores of Onondaga Lake where our ancestors accepted a of peace and formed a democracy with Chiefs, Clanmothers and Faithkeepers placed as leaders, a government so thorough it spelled out leadership titles and duties, designated clans with two houses complementing one another, included procedures on how to install new leaders, on how to acknowledge and treat the natural world, and gave specific protocols to care for those who have passed it on. This was so complete, encompassing mandates for a way of life that it continues in the midst of American society today.
Our Confederacy, the Haudenosaunee, comprising the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca, was formed at least 1,000 years ago, perhaps 2,000 years ago. (The Tuscaroras were accepted in the Confederacy in 1722.) The ancient instructions are oral, carefully passed down from one generation to the next, the words still spoken in our languages. We are not a remnant of an ancient civilization but an extension of it.
Today, we face dozens of pressures from the world outside of our small communities and, unfortunately, mounting pressures from within. We are inundated daily with western thought, messages directly in contrast to our ancient teachings. Our youth, in particular, are in a precarious situation as the world outside of our longhouses pulls them in other directions. Many circumstances are new enticements, new ideas, modern gadgets, a lifestyle centered on individual gains, as opposed to the ‘old’ communal way of everyone helping one another and a whole village truly raising a child. Today the Haudenosaunee use ancient laws to deal with contemporary situations such as drug abuse, treasonous acts, and a myriad of social ills indicative of ways humans can disrespect one another. Our laws don’t include jails with degrees of punishments, but rather concentrate on individual freedom to conduct oneself in acceptable behaviors with positive values. This self-regulation we call ‘using the good mind.’ Haudenosaunee do recognize a darker side to humans and a ‘punisher’ in the afterlife for wrongdoings.
At the core of this way of life is a Thanksgiving that acknowledges all of the elements that sustain us: the grasses, medicines, trees, animals, birds, air, foods, sun, moon, stars, rains, the Creator, and one another. This Thanksgiving is spoken daily by individuals, and at the beginning and end of all ceremonies, meetings and other gatherings on our territories. The minds of those present are brought together in humbling thought, a calming reminder of our place in the universe. We are not a force to subjugate others, but a part of a whole life plan to live in balance with the rest of creation.
Some of our communities have come to this day completely independent of federal intervention. My community, the Onondaga Nation, is one of them. There is no Bureau of Indian Affairs office, there is no police force, and there are no ‘strings’ to any federal agency to hold us in check. Our Nation’s Council meets and negotiates with various agencies: the New York State Department of Transportation for our roads and bridges, the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office, for serious internal matters, and the Environmental Protection Agency and the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation regarding our lands and waters and the Lake bearing our name, to name just a few. This is procedure—this is protocol. Every official is greeted with those wellworn words of Thanksgiving, also proper protocol.
Our ancestors are the signatories on the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua with the new government, ratified by George Washington, President of the United States of America in 1795.* The Haudenosaunee hold fast to Canandaigua as a binding agreement between two Nations. When disharmony occurs and we are given cause to have complaint, we take the issue to the U.S. President. When there is outside encroachment on to our territories, we remind the President of the words in this treaty. The resulting response is routinely from the Department of Justice, or Department of Interior, but at least one visit to our Longhouse by a special assistant to the White House during the Carter administration. Canandaigua established ‘peace and friendship’ between our Nations, and we continue to maintain this agreement.
We survive because our predecessors saw to it. The dedication and tenacity of all those leaders throughout our history to carry on in spite of the armies they faced, relocation, missionaries, germ warfare, boarding schools and attempts to extinguish them as a people. They still held firm. Our strength is also in the message itself, the Great Law of Peace, a principled method of balance in leadership, and environmental mandates expressed in ceremony and peace. And equally vital is our belief in a power that created this for us, and who continues to keep our people well.
These teachings are the heart and soul of the Haudenosaunee. However, foreign influences seem to grow larger every day, permeating susceptible minds bringing angst and uncertainty to our people. Some are drawn to assorted entertainments with money grabbing a hold in a rush to attain material wealth. The tired old western role of male dominance lingers in some minds upsetting the balance of fundamental Haudenosaunee law. Haudenosaunee languages have given way to proficiency in English. The intrusions seem endless. We maintain our economic independence, but even that resource is eyed by outside entities in a current taxation challenge. We have a tough road ahead, but our elders say it has always been so.
Realizing all humans are affected by the exploitation of our earth and her resources, Haudenosaunee speakers have begun sharing our ancient messages with the world outside of our Nations. In urgent appeal, they call for us all to look out for the generations yet coming? for that is our vision, and that is our mandate from the past.
* National Archives, Wash., D.C., Ontario Co. Historical Society, Canandaigua, N.Y.