Tag Archive: indigenous rights


(This post is based mostly on what I learned in a talk given by Jack Rossen, a professor at Ithaca college, at the Ecovillage of Ithaca on Oct. 22nd, 2015. Although I have done my best to present information accurately and with sensitivity to the first nations people of this land I am not an expert and welcome feedback, corrections, and comments and also encourage you to seek out your own truth)

Many of you will know of the Haudenosaunee confederacy as the Iroquois confederacy but Iroquois was not a name these people chose themselves. Haudenosaunee is the name by which these people, who come from the Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga, Mohawk, and later the Tuscarora nations, call themselves. These are the first nations people of the area in which I now live; They inhabited much of central, upstate and western New York, extending down into Pennsylvania.

The Haudenosaunee are a people who traditionally kept their history through oral tradition, with faithkeepers who are appointed by clan mothers, and stories that are passed down from one generation to the next. For most western, modern world scholars, oral tradition is not to be trusted, a belief that a Haudenosaunee person would find incredibly disrespectful. Imagine you knowing the stories of your family- where they immigrated from, how they ate, what they celebrated, where your ancestors are buried- and then being told by an outsider, a “scholar,” that no, you have it all wrong and since you cannot prove it with written paper documents or artifacts we do not have to return the bones of your ancestors that we dug up and now have in our museum basements. This has been the story of some of these people, including the Cayuga, whose homeland is in the Ithaca area.

One archeologist names Jack Rossen has been doing his best to work with the Cayuga and other Haudenosaunee people to keep their history from being revised by outsiders and give it back to them. And this is the story of one such way in which he is helping them gain acceptance from the wider world for a truth they already knew.

Oral traditions says that the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, perhaps one of the earliest known forms of democracy, was born 1000 years ago, around 1000 AD. But most western scholars say the confederacy was founded either only a generation before contact, in 1451, after contact as late as the mid 15,00’s.

To the Haudenosaunee the creation of the confederacy is known through the legend of the Peacemaker, a messenger of the creator who was sent in a time when there had been much conflict for centuries. It is said that the peacemaker traveled in a white stone canoe, seeking out the leaders of the five warring nations, the Cayuga, Seneca, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk. In his searching he came across a woman who had no alliances and fed and sheltered all who passed through, including men from all tribes as they traveled to war upon each other. This woman’s name was Jikonsahseh and she was the first person to accept the Peacemaker’s Great Law of Peace and some say she is what inspired the tradition of the Clan Mother, a tradition that still lives on today.

The last of the tribes to be convinced of the Peacemaker’s Great Law of Peace was the Seneca. As the Peacemaker asked them to consider the Law of Peace he told the Seneca to look for a “Sky sign” and legend has it that as the tribe leaders gathered at high sun (noon) when the corn was high (late summer) that the sky grew dark and the stars came out and this convinced them to lay down their weapons under the great white pine.

The white pine has long been a symbol of peace for the Haudenosaunee people and Jack Rossen found and carbon dated a piece of pottery with the great white pine at a Cayuga archaeological site to 1100 AD. This little artifact gave validity to the claim of the first nations people that their Haudenosaunee confederacy was indeed formed much earlier then western scholars have believed, closer to the 1000 year old date that their oral history says.

With needles in clusters of 5, like the five tribal nations that made up the original confederacy, and that stay green and never fall, just as the Great Law of Peace must be able to weather all seasons, the peacemaker made the Great White Pine a forever sacred tree to the Haudenosaunee people.

As Jack Rossen looked to other evidence that would further corroborate his finding and support the oral history of the Haudenosaunee he went and looked back at the records of full solar eclipse, the most likely explanation for the sky sign that the Seneca saw. Solar eclipses are not an everyday event, and to find one that would have been visible from Seneca territory, occurred in late summer when the corn would have been high, around noon, when the leaders always gathered and would have caused the sky to darken enough for the stars to come out seemed like an even more unlikely event to find. But indeed Jack Rossen found one. In the year of of 909, on august 18th, the sun reach full annular eclipse at 17:13 UT which would have been 1:15pm New York time. And so it seems that indeed, the Haudenosaunee oral history is correct that their confederacy was formed over 1000 years ago.

The confederacy is unique for many reasons. One such way is that the Peacemaker established a matriarchal system, called the clan system, to help to bridge these nations that had been warring for centuries. One’s clan is determined by your mother, so if you mother is of the bear clan, you also are of the bear clan. But one is not allowed to marry within the same clan and so through marriage there became members of each clan throughout the Haudenosaunee Confederation. And anyone in your clan is family, no matter whether they are Cayuga, Seneca, Mohawk, Onandaga, Oneida or any other nation. This allowed one to find family no matter where you were, traveling throughout the confederacy. There are nine clans within which they are divided into three elements; air (Heron, Hawk, and Snipe), water (Turtle, Ell, and Beaver), and land (Bear, Wold, and Deer). And within some clans, such as the bear and turtle clans, there are three different species. Even today, if you meet a first nations person they will often introduce themselves by their tribe and clan name (ei: I am ____ of the Onandaga nation and of the Heron clan.) Clan mothers hold great power in the nations, as they are the ones who appoint chief, faithkeepers and other important positions within the tribe. And they can also take these positions away if they feel an individual is no longer suited for it.

As a modern day resident of these lands I am grateful to be learning about the history of the people that were here before me, and not only for historical reasons but also because they are still alive here amongst us, and their struggles are still current. Two years ago I participated in the Two Row Wampum, an event that asked for a 400 year old treaty to be recognized and honored, a clear illustration of how these struggles are still alive today. Also, as we enter a time of the year where the veil between the worlds is thin and we often honor our ancestors, through holidays such as Halloween and Day of the Dead, if feels right to call attention to the ancestors of this this land that I now stand on and have chosen to build my house on. The Haudenosaunee were and are a wise people from which we could stand to learn many lessons from, about peace and living in harmony with the land, as well as many other things. And they are also a people that need our support, understanding, and recognition as they struggle to keep what is left of their culture alive.

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A canoe and a sail boat sail parallel. Parallel lines never touch. They exist harmoniously. This was the basis for the two row treaty, the first treaty between the indigenous peoples of North America and the Europeans. When the Europeans (at this time it was the Dutch) came from the east, with their different language, culture, and ways, the native people saw that their ways were different and often conflicting from their own ways but recognized that they were still people and so sought a way to live harmoniously with them. Talks between the Europeans and the natives led to an agreement. The Europeans recorded it on paper. The native people used their own way to record the treaty; wampum beads, made from quahog shells. These beads were used by the native people for identification, to record events, and to carry messages. So the treaty was made into a wampum belt. On this belt were two parallel rows of purple beads to symbolize the native’s canoe and the european’s sailboat running parallel forever. In between these two purple rows, each two beads thick, was a row of white beads, three beads thick, for peace, friendship, and forever. The white beads represent truth. And so, in a white sea of truth, both sides agreed to travel down the road of life in peace and harmony with each other and all other beings on the planet. They pledged to not interfere with each other’s affairs and to take not more then they needed, leaving enough for the other and for the next seven generations. This treaty was to be forever. Or as the natives say, “as long as the grass grows green, as long as the water flows downhill, and as long as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.” And indeed, the grass still grows green, the water stills flows down, and the sun still rises in the east and sets in the west. And the wampum belt still exists, as testimony to this treaty, while the piece of paper has long been lost or destroyed. But the europeans have violated this treaty many times, passing laws to try and change the native people, what they are, and how they conduct their spiritual, political, and everyday lives.

As 2013 marks the 400 year anniversary of the two row treaty the indigenous people and their allies are calling for this treaty to be honored as we move forward. We are asking to work towards an existence that leaves enough for others and for the next seven generations. An existence that does not interfere with the existence of other beings but lives harmoniously side by side. Is this not something we can all work towards? Is it not something that will lead to a better future for all our grandchildren?

This is what I came to realize over the last three days, as I walked and paddled with native people and allies from stuart park in Ithaca, NY to S.H.A.R.E. farm in Springport, NY, about 30 miles north of Ithaca. This is not just about the struggle of indigenous people. This is all of our struggle. This is about our earth and our children. Corporations are destroying the earth that we  all live on through fracking, mining, and consuming and they are doing it in our name. As the saying goes, perhaps you could stand by when they took the land from the Indians because that was not you. And perhaps you could stand by as they dumped toxic waste in the black ghettos because that was not you. But soon they will come for you and there will be no one left. Everyone suffers when clean drinking water is polluted. Everyone suffers when our food contains poisons. So really, we should all be joining this fight and demand that the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the land that grows our food be sacred. This is not their struggle. It is our struggle. Already we are becoming victims to what we have helped create. Our taxes support practices we do not support. Our corporations have been elevated to the level of nations and exploit our resources with no consideration to the well being of future generations. And they do it in our name.

And so it felt so right to walk on the land and paddle across cayuga waters for three days and three nights learning about, spreading awareness around, and living the way of the two row wampum treaty. And the plants and animals seemed to agree. Three blue herons flew over us as we paddled the first day. And two foxes ran along the edge of the railroad tracks. Sitting on a rock on the water, Craig, a young Diné (Navajo) man played his wooden flute into the sunset our first night at Myers point. Little ducklings came, mama duck in tow, to swim around his rock. Walking through farm land the second day horses came, drawn to our drum and song, and then began to gallup in an earth-wise circle. Three baby colts and a half dozen or so full grown horses galloped and galloped in a circle, dancing for us. None of us had ever seen anything like it. The cows on the farms stood at attention and watched us, every single one of them following us with their big brown eyes, saluting our cause it seemed. The animals were saying yes. This is right. Walk together. Paddle together.  For peace and harmony.

There, in the context of peaceful, slow travel, magic happens. A Magic that leads to spontaneous music and dance in front of strangers in the evening. A Magic that leads to hard but necessary conversations as people open their homes and sacred spaces to us travelers of peace. A magic that leads to the opening of hearts and minds.

dan and donna

And so the two row wampum renewal campaign is about beginning that healing through conversations and awareness so that we can find ways to walk side by side as brothers and sisters. And for myself, I will say this walk has helped me learn how to better do that. I feel I have begun to form the friendships, knowledge, and vocabulary to seek my place in this struggle. And the fears that acted as fences between people with difference begin to dissolve. Another magic that happens when you travel slowly with people.

July 27th through August 10th over 400 people will be paddling and walking from albany to the United Nations headquarters in New York City by way of the Hudson river. They will be caring the same message we carried on this three day walk: a message of peace, asking that we all work together to take care of this earth. At the same time, a group will gather in Washington, DC on July 13th and leave July 15th to walk across the nation, arriving in Alcatraz, CA on December 22nd to complete the 4th longest walk. The first one was in 1978 to call attention to legislation that was trying to be pushed through congress that would greatly restrict the lives of native americans. These pieces of legislation were dropped. In 2008 the 2nd longest walk took place to call attention to indigenous sacred sites. And in 2011 was the 3rd walk to reverse diabetes. This 4th walk is to take the medicine back home. The last three walks have been from the west coast to D.C., carrying messages out, to the rest of the world. This walk will begin in DC and travel back across the original route taken in 1978, taking the medicine home back to native peoples.

If you can, join one of these two momentous events. Even if only for a day. Go out and support the travelers as they pass through your area. Offer them food, water, shelter. All will be appreciated.

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