Monday, October 26, 2009
When I look out my (new) office window, I can see a sliver of the lake, Lake Ontario, and observe its many moods. Today it looks cold and metallic, silver blue and wave-capped in the wind. I think about the lake a lot. It’s a focal point to my people, part of the territory that we have always considered ours. Skanadariio, beautiful shining water, some days as calm and placid as a mirror, other days dark green and angry, surging and powerfully mean. Due south of Toronto is Rochester, originally a Seneca town, launching point of our northward trading and warring ventures. We used to control the waterways in our part of Anowara (Turtle Island) in giant war canoes made of elm bark, massive and menacing. The Ojibway had those sleek little birch bark canoes that were fast and agile, but we had elm bark canoes, made to hold war parties and transport goods and people over long distances.
I think a lot about the military tradition of my people. I read once that to observe the Iroquois in battle was to observe the course of a hurricane, powerful and devastating. Yet our traditions from the Gayanashagowa, the Great Law, make it very clear we were interested in peace. We call it the White Roots of Peace, the Great Peace, the Tree of Peace. Everything relates back to living in harmony with each other and with the earth. Even our greeting – “se:koh, skennenkowa” essentially means “How’s your peace?” We call our great cultural hero, the architect of the Great Peace, the Peacemaker, who lived by three principles: peace within individuals and between groups that comes from a healthy body and a sane mind; secondly, justice that comes from correct actions, thought, and speech. And lastly, spiritual power that comes from physical strength and civil authority (meaning the power of the chiefs to make the decisions and the authority of the women who appoint the chiefs). These were the overriding principles that governed our nations and our Confederacy.
However, contact with Cartier at Hochelaga in 1534 and then the subsequent disaster with Champlain firing on the Mohawk at Ticonderoga in 1609 – suddenly this seems to turn the Haudenosaunee into a lean mean fighting machine, a Spartan-style military society that suddenly ruled over the territory with a fiery fist, intent on ruling the territory and controlling the beaver trade. In fact, subsequent reading of history tells us that the Iroquois are responsible for eradicating or absorbing up to at least 30 different nations to rule over a wilderness empire from north of the St Lawrence in the East, the Mississippi Valley in the West, and down through to the edge of the Cherokee territory in North Carolina.
It’s actually interesting to figure out how swiftly and intensely the entire culture threw its weight behind such a military venture. Suddenly women spend all of their energy raising children and growing the corn to fuel these military expeditions; the men train from a very early age to become warriors and walk the warrior’s path, wasase. I admire the discipline of a people who can just switch direction like that and pour all of their energy into a common, united purpose. I salute my ancestors for their ferocity and discipline... and I utterly grieve the reality that colonization has completely fractured us today, perhaps fatally. I can’t imagine us getting so completely behind a cultural program that designed us for dominance, to spread the White Roots of Peace beyond our borders even if it had to be done by flint and fire. So many of us would rather not bother thinking collectively, living instead with our flatscreen tvs and our SUVs and contentedly bickering over the tobacco trade that while lucrative does not fund our communities adequately. Sometimes I wonder if we are broken to the point of disintegration.
But then I think of some of the people I know from my community and how vibrant and alive and amazing they are, and figure maybe it’s just different now, that our wasase, our personal war dance, has to be different. Maybe we spread our Haudenosaunee-ness outward like a virus, infecting subtly at a cellular level. Maybe it’s enough that I can sit here in an office tower overlooking my little sliver of Skanadariio, and simply by my being here and working at my job can influence a culture that tried to forget about us and thinks we have gone away, but here we are.
Maybe that’s enough.