By Wendy Gonyea (Onondaga)
The Haudenosaunee exist and thrive today in pockets on ancestral land. Our occupation predates ‘American History’ as the general public knows it. Our people lived in the hills, trails, forests of Pennsylvania, New York, Canada and much of the woodlands of the northeast of North America. History also reveals how much of Haudenosaunee lands were divided up by newcomers to America. The paths of our ancestors became super highways and canals. Hunting grounds have given way to industry, mills, towns, malls and suburbs. Despite the obvious, the Haudenosaunee still exist, still hunt, plant, and carry on the ancient ceremonies to this day.
We are Haudenosaunee, meaning ‘the People of the Longhouse.’ Some know us as the Iroquois, or Five Nations. We are Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca. Tuscaroras were added in 1722, thus the Six Nations. Our ancestors were unified into a Confederation when our Peacemaker brought a message of unity ‘The Great Law of Peace’ over a thousand years ago. This law became the foundation of democratic principles with a balance of duties among leaders. Chiefs and Clanmothers share duties with specific mandates of governance, ceremonies and communal life.
At the core of this way of life is a Thanksgiving that acknowledges all the elements that sustain us; the trees, grasses, animals, birds, air, sun, moon, stars, rains, the Creator and one another. An oral Thanksgiving is given daily by individuals, and at the beginning and end of all ceremonies, meetings, and other gatherings. The minds of those present are brought together in common thought, a calming reminder of our place in the universe. We are not a force to subjugate others, but a part of this whole life plan to live in balance with the rest of creation. We are to be thankful for our food and waters. This is much like the American holiday of Thanksgiving, but much more frequent.
At Onondaga, my community located minutes south of Syracuse in Central New York State, we just finished six days of ceremony to give Thanksgivings for this year’s Harvest. Each day of the ceremony has an important purpose and follows ancient protocol. During this time, the people gather at our Longhouse, a log building in the heart of our village. During ceremonies individuals give personal Thanksgiving in speeches and songs, babies are named, foods are shared, sacred songs are sung, sacred dances carried on, and our ancient games are played. We use wampum, drums, and rattles in all our ceremonies. Throughout the year we will take this time out from work, school, and other activities to attend and participate. We gather in ceremony when the sap flows from the maple tree in the early spring, when it is time to plant, when the strawberries ripen, when the beans and corn are ready, when harvesting is done, and in the Midwinter. Some of our ceremonies are one day, not six like Harvest. All of the Haudenosaunee communities carry on their ceremonies s handed down to them by their elders, and their elders before them.
When we are in ceremony at Onondaga, there are no meetings or business events held. This is one of the cultural differences that can be misunderstood by the general public. Our leaders will not be available, or even likely to return a phone call because this time has a spiritual purpose, and they are an integral part of perpetuating our way of life.
The Onondaga Nation is one of the last traditional forms of Indigenous governments continuing to function in the United States. Our leaders are chosen by a system of Clans. We have a Clanmother who works alongside of each Chief. The Clanmother will ‘stand up’ a Chief in a formal ceremony after her clan decides he is capable of leadership. We do not have elections. Our Council of Chiefs sits to discuss and decide every kind of issue, whether it’s a domestic internal issue, or a meeting with state or federal agencies on a government-to-government basis. Our Council must be ‘of one mind,’ or reach a consensus on an issue, for it to be passed, or become law.
We value our system of governance as it has served us well throughout history. Another important aspect of our decision-making process as well as ceremonies they are carried on in our native tongue, in Onondaga language. Today, we work hard to preserve Onondaga, because the English language has permeated all of our lives.
Our people work in many jobs as engineers, teachers, technicians, we constantly adjust to the fast paced world outside of our territory. But we also have an identity stemming from a long line of ancestors, for we are all a part of that way of life that has quietly survived the ages, and we are looking to hold the line for the generations yet coming.
Skanonh, that means ‘Peace.’
Originally posted Saturday, October 3, 2009. Updated June 1, 2017, to fix special characters that were appearing as errors.