Great Tribal Leaders of Modern Times: Oren Lyons

Institute for Tribal Government

Produced by the Institute for Tribal Government at Portland State University in 2004, the landmark “Great Tribal Leaders of Modern Times” interview series presents the oral histories of contemporary leaders who have played instrumental roles in Native nations' struggles for sovereignty, self-determination, and treaty rights. The leadership themes presented in these unique videos provide a rich resource that can be used by present and future generations of Native nations, students in Native American studies programs, and other interested groups.

In this interview, conducted in October 2003, traditional faithkeeper of the Onondaga Nation Oren Lyons shares his experience in various roles within the international Indigenous community. Lyons also shares his involvement in the U.S. Senate's passage of a resolution in 1992 that formally acknowledges the contribution of the Iroquois Confederacy to the development of the United States Constitution, and his special relationship with the nation of Sweden, whose leaders are confronting the realities of global warming.

This video resource is featured on the Indigenous Governance Database with the permission of the Institute for Tribal Government.

Native Nations
Resource Type

Lyons, Oren. "Great Tribal Leaders of Modern Times" (interview series). Institute for Tribal Government, Portland State University. Buffalo, New York. October 2003. Interview.

Kathryn Harrison:

"Hello. My name is Kathryn Harrison. I am presently the Chairperson of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon. I have served on my council for 21 years. Tribal leaders have influenced the history of this country since time immemorial. Their stories have been handed down from generation to generation. Their teaching is alive today in our great contemporary tribal leaders whose stories told in this series are an inspiration to all Americans both tribal and non-tribal. In particular it is my hope that Indian youth everywhere will recognize the contributions and sacrifices made by these great tribal leaders."

[Native music]


"Oren Lyons, a citizen of the Onondaga Nation of the Iroquois Confederacy, is faith keeper of the Turtle Clan. At the request of Clan Mothers in the late 1960s, he gave up a successful career as a commercial artist in New York City to return to the Onondaga Nation. The Onondaga is one of six nations in the Iroquois Confederacy. Chief Oren Lyons spent his childhood his says, ‘running about the Nation,' where he learned ceremonial practices including the game of lacrosse. He says that when you talk about lacrosse you talk about the lifeblood of the six nations. He was an All-American lacrosse player as a goalkeeper when he was a student at Syracuse University. In 1990 he organized an Iroquois national team that played in the World Lacrosse Championships in Australia. In 2003 Oren was inducted into the International Scholar Athlete Hall of Fame at the University of Rhode Island's Institute for International Sport. His personal story ranges widely over many experiences; hunting, fishing, coaching, painting, activism, traditional leader, crisis negotiator, author and teacher. He is a Professor of Native American Studies at State University of New York Buffalo. With John Mohawk he published a major work, Exiled in the Land of the Free. Presence at the most significant recent events for Indigenous peoples in the United States and abroad, in 1972 Oren accompanied a peace delegation of the Iroquois to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington which had been taken over by the American Indian Movement, AIM. In 1973 he led a delegation to the Lakota Nation during the standoff at Wounded Knee. In 1977 he was instrumental in organizing a group of Native leaders to speak at the United Nations in Geneva. Through Oren's work in educating leaders the United States Senate passed a resolution in 1987 that formally acknowledges the contribution of the Iroquois Confederacy to the development of the United States Constitution. Oren has a special relationship with Sweden. His philosophy of responsibility to the welfare of future generations has struck a responsive chord in Sweden's leadership, which is facing the realities of global warming. In the north of the country Oren has a working partnership with one of the oldest cultures in the world, the Forest People, fishermen and reindeer herders. Often in the limelight Oren Lyons remains compassionate and humorous using his visibility for matters of urgent concern, tribal sovereignty, the survival of Indigenous people and their traditions and the perpetuation of Creation. Speaking before the United Nations at the opening of the Year of Indigenous Peoples in 1993 he said that, ‘when we walk upon Mother Earth we always plant our feet carefully because we know the faces of our future generations are looking up at us from beneath the ground. Mother Earth is not a pleasant metaphor for Oren Lyons. He is gravely concerned about Her survival. He believes human beings can be productive and supportive of Nature or they can be parasites. They are, he declares, ‘presently the latter. There are forces that will check this unbridled growth such as disease and lack of food and water. Privilege will not prevail. There can be no peace as long as you make war on Mother Earth.' His message of peace also took him to the streets to protest the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Committed to religious understanding as a way of reducing world tensions he has participated in ceremonies with Buddhists, Christians and other groups at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York and in other religious venues. Though Chief Oren Lyons' message to the world is prophetic and urgent, his lectures always include an encouragement to people to take good care of their families. He is himself the father of two children. At the end of his interview with the Institute for Tribal Government in Buffalo, October, 2003, Oren said, ‘I have two instructions. Be thankful for what you have and enjoy life.'"

Life as a child

Oren Lyons:

"Well, I grew up on the Onondaga Nation territory. The time that I was growing up they called it the Onondaga Reservation. My mother was a Seneca, the Wolf Clan and she was married to my father who was Onondaga, the Eel Clan. Although I was born in the Seneca Territory, Seneca Nation, I just happened to be born there, I was brought up, the whole family brought up at Onondaga. Since the process of our way of keeping track, it follows the woman; I'm Seneca, following my mother, Seneca Wolf, as was her whole family. In 1972 I was adopted into the Onondaga Nation. So now I'm Onondaga, still Wolf but borrowed into the Turtle Clan and I've been sitting for the Turtles since 1967. So we were brought up Indian style. My early childhood was just running about the Nation. I don't think I saw a White person until I was about four years old. We didn't travel downtown. We didn't go down...Syracuse is just down the road. We're about today, jump into the car and you're downtown Syracuse in 10-15 minutes. So we're right there in that all your family is around, grandmother's down the road. You've got all your relatives are everywhere in a real community so that even though you may not be related, just wherever you happened to be at dinner time, that's where you ate. People just sat you down wherever you were. And if you lived off the main highway, which is where the spigots were, then you had to go to the springs and carry water. So we carried water all our lives mostly growing up and cut wood, hunted, hunted for food. And we were very good at it. Everybody was planting. I remember my father planting fields in the back and using the old style of, what would you call it, plow, the plow that you have the handles behind the horse and that's tough plow because you hit rocks and you're like flying all over the place. The horses were very patient with us out there. They knew more than we did about plowing and so forth. Cold winters, no such thing as insulated houses. There was a school on the reservation, still is. It kind of was like an outpost of extension of White people into our land. There was no such thing as a Parent-Teacher's Association or anything like that. You just sent the kids to the doorway and left them and picked them up and no interaction. And for us it was like going into this outpost with all White teachers and strange ideas and different talking people. It was a trial every day. We were pretty independent, rambunctious kids. I know it was a hard time for them. But school was something to be endured. And most kids quit sixth grade, went on to work. So the reservation, the Nation itself was a very traditional Nation, still is I think. As far as I know we're probably the last of the traditional chiefs and leaders in North America who are still in charge of land. There's no Bureau of Indian Affairs, we don't allow them on our territory. We don't allow the state police nor any police except our own people. So we have working arrangements and it's not unusual, that's just the way we were always brought up. We were brought up to be who we are and we don't think it's strange. But as I travel about then I see the differences. The long house was the center of activities all the time. Ceremonies were going on, there was always dances, there was always feasts going on, there was always community activities."

The story of the Great Peacemaker, a spiritual being who came to the Iroquois Nation 1,000 or more years ago

Oren Lyons:

"We didn't learn that story, we lived it. So you don't learn something that you're living and if you're living it then you're just involved in it and you don't think of it as learning cause that's the Great Law. Peace was what governed our people. You were just involved in it and never thought much about it. In the traditional style of governance there rarely is there sessions where people will sit you down and talk to you like that. You just learn by participation and by watching. So the Great Law of Peace is a daily event. It's how you live. It's how ceremonies are performed, how leaders work, how the community operates. It's all...that's how we're brought up. So we're brought up very free, very independent and very aware of who we were in terms of our Clan and our Nation. People kept track, very close track of Clans. The Great Law of Peace is our second gift or second message. The first message that our people received was how to live, non-Indians call religion. I don't really have a word for religion. It's how you live day to day. And so the ceremonies and all of that was given to us way, way, way, way back. We don't know when. But we know the stories and we know how it came and we know all of that. And they are epic stories, they are great, great stories. The Great Law of Peace came when we were in battles and when we were neglecting the first message which was how to live. It was terrible times for Five Nation people. We were battling, we were fighting one another and we were fighting internally. The men were on the war path, so-called war path all the time. They were moving, they were fighting, fighting each other, fight anybody. Children, women, they were hiding, they were in the woods, they weren't even in their homes because they were afraid and it was a terrible time and here comes the Great Peacemaker. His intent and purpose was before he was born and his mother was a virgin, which she didn't know how she got pregnant and when the baby was born her mother tried to kill the baby three separate times and then the third time she received a visit from spiritual beings and they told her, ‘You're not going to be able to do that and don't do that because this person has a mission.' And so the story of him growing up was also one of being different and being singular in who he was."

The Peacemaker's process was thought, not force. He moved from the Mohawk to Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca

Oren Lyons:

"And he said, ‘my business is peace. I want to talk to your leaders.' And they laughed and they said, ‘Well, you've got a lot of work, you have a lot of work.' He was very insistent and that impressed them so they said, ‘All right, we'll take the message.' And so he left, they left and they started out and the first night that he spent, he spent at a lodge that was there, there was a woman by the name of [Mohawk Language] and she was an Erie, she was an Erie woman. They call it cat nation and she was, her mission was to provide food and lodging for the runners and the fighters up and down... But she said that she had a rule and that was that no discussion of war, no discussion of battle, that they could spend the night, they leave their weapons outside and she'd provide them with food and so forth. So that was what she did and when the Peacemaker stopped and he told her his mission was peace, she said, ‘Well, that's wonderful. I believe in your mission and whatever I can do to help.' And then there's this story of [Mohawk name]. [Mohawk name] is an Onondaga who was exiled from his own land because of the fierce leadership there with this fierce leader by the name of Tadadaho. He was evil incarnate and powerful and ruled and had killed three of his daughters and he was mourning. He just left and he was in the woods all the time and the Mohawks knew about him and he kind of drifted up their way and they said, ‘You should go talk with this man, he talks like you do about peace.' So he did and there's a whole epic story about how he became a partner with the Peacemaker. And then they convinced these leaders, they changed their minds and then they moved west to the Oneida and the Oneidas were going through the same thing. And so the story goes after convincing the leaders of the Oneidas to come with them then they went to Onondaga and they couldn't deal with Onondaga, he was too strong. Tadadaho wouldn't...he did all kinds of things and they couldn't get to him. He lived in a swamp, he lived by himself and they couldn't get near him. His hair was covered with snakes, he was twisted. He was just evil and powerful and a cannibal on top of it. He didn't want to talk with them about any peace or anything."

To solve the difficulties, a woman suggests a song for approaching the Onondaga leader

Oren Lyons:

"They learned the song and then they all approached him and they said it affected him, the song affected him and that even as they approached they could see him transforming, they could see the snakes dropping from his head, they could see he was transforming into something like a human being and eventually they talked with him. And then they bargained with him and ‘Your title will be the leader of the Five Nations and they will always come from Onondaga and this will always be the central fire.' And they bargained with him and he agreed with that and he transformed him and the Peacemaker transformed him, the most evil of all beings. And the lesson there is you should never give up on anybody, that anybody can be redeemed."

The Peacemaker lays down the foundations of governance

Oren Lyons:

"And then he began the discussion on governance and how you shall operate and how you shall function. And so the women were chosen as the keepers of the nations actually. So the identity of children is directly what the woman is and that's the law, one of the oldest laws we have. And that continues today and it is still her duty to choose the leaders and oversee the conduct and activities and oversee the general welfare of the clan itself and indeed act like the Mother of the Clan and of the people and very, very hard work. We have Clan Mothers today doing that today just as they always have been and it's difficult work. You give your life over to the people and then of course when she chooses the leaders then he said, ‘Her choice, it shall be her choice.' And I think that's the genius of why we're still here. I think that's what makes the Iroquois so strong was that the balance of relationship and governance was between male and female, men and women. They had equal responsibility and very much work to do but the essence of it was that leadership was chosen by the woman. And it had to be ratified then by the clan by consensus. There was no voting. You had to all agree which is a harder way to do things but of course when you come to a total agreement you're much stronger."

The Peacemaker established a system of democracy

Oren Lyons:

"Then what he said, the Peacemaker when he laid out the foundation he said, ‘There will be elder brothers and younger brothers. You will have two houses and this is how you will work together is your houses. This is the dynamics of your governance, two houses, even within your Nation there will be two houses and this is how the clans are set and that's how the houses operate together. So we're talking about governance now. We're talking about how the establishment of a democratic government, which I believe is the basis of Western society. The democracy that they talk about that comes from Greece is not here. They learned what we knew."

Western democracy and the U.S. Constitution have roots in the Iroquois Confederacy

Oren Lyons:

"Now when the Peacemaker had them throw these weapons of war into the currents under the earth, he said, ‘They'll be carried away to nobody knows where and you'll now rely on the rule of law, the rule of peace and the process of governing people by their own consent.' And so I would say that democracy, Western democracy is based on that. I talked about this meeting in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, when the Onondaga Chief talked to the leaders about having a union, 1744. All of that was heavily recorded. It was recorded very well and there's a very thick and large book on just that 1744 treaties and this book was printed by Benjamin Franklin. All those words were taken down to Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin read the reports and he said, ‘This is a good idea.' Ten years later he called the Albany Plan of Union and he asked the Six Nations to preside to talk about governance, talk about democracy. And at that meeting there was a spy from the King of England and the word went back and the letter is available warning the King of this discussion by people of governance by the people. So they knew very well what was going on and they understood the hierarchy and they understood... And by rubbing shoulders with Indian nations and people for 200 years transformed the Englishman to an American because in those days when you said you were an American, an American meant to be an Indian. And so Benjamin Franklin really saw and said...there's words where he directly talks about that ‘savages can make something like this why can't we,' and he followed through. And so the Albany Plan of Union transformed into the Continental Congress and the Continental Congress was formed very, very much on the lines of the Confederacy. They called themselves the 13 Fires. They called themselves the Grand Counsel. They used all the euphemisms and they used wampum, the original... At the Boston Tea Party when they dressed up as Indians, they didn't dress up as Indians, they dressed up as Mohawks. They were dressed as Mohawks and so the whole idea of being free and different and fighting your father and so on. 1775 when they came to our...asked for a meeting at German Flats where they wanted us to join them in the coming battle, the revolution, our leaders said to them at the time, they said, ‘well, we know your father. We have a lot of agreements with your father, we love your father and we know you as well and we have agreements with you as well. But we see this as a war between father and son and we would much rather step aside and not be a part of it.' And the delegation from the Continental Congress said at that time, ‘Good,' they says, ‘because that was our second request. If you are not going to fight with us, don't fight against us.' And so it served the purpose of the Confederation because they knew that this battle was going to be taking place around them and probably across their land, which it did finally and they wanted a neutral position because they had their hands full with the French as well. There's a whole history of the French and Indian War and that was mostly fought by Six Nations against...on behalf of the English. All that history, all those meetings, hundreds and hundreds of meetings that we had, we knew each other very well, the leaders. And our leaders traveled and if you go down to the Philadelphia you will see in front of the Hall of Independence where the Liberty Bell is you'll see a square of greens out front, it's out front there's an open square, that's Six Nation land. We visited there so often, we camped right there. It's our land today even. So these kinds of discussions you find really a complete discussion in our book Exiled in the Land of the Free. And we wrote it because the 200th anniversary of the Constitution of the United States was coming up and they were making no consideration or no place for the Indian people and we said, ‘How can you do that?' When we went to Washington we said, ‘Well, where do you want the Iroquois to stand in your celebration?' And they said, ‘Why?' because they had no idea, it's not in your books, they don't teach it, it's not in the school. Nobody teaches that history that I'm talking about. And we said, ‘Well, we gave you this idea of democracy. We held your hand through the process, our leaders.' And so it was presented to the Congress, we took it to Senator Inouye and the result was that the passage of S76 recognizing the contributions of the Iroquois to the Constitution of the United States on the principle of democracy. So I say that Western democracy is directly from our roots. When they came over on the Pinta, Santa Maria, they weren't bringing any democracy with them, at all. They brought a lot of pain with them and they brought a lot of ideas about ownership of land and so forth but they didn't bring democracy. And when the ship the Mayflower came over, that didn't bring democracy either. They were escaping the King of England. Democracy didn't come over on the boat. Democracy was here and it was all over the country, it was all over. The whole country was democratic.

What went wrong in the new U.S. democracy?

Oren Lyons:

"With our reception of the Great Law that spiritual center, that spiritual peace, is the center of it, it's the foundation of our Confederation, spirituality, the spiritual law and we said, ‘Well, that's not a good idea. What you're doing is going to come back.' And then when they consolidated their power and they actually began to go over their own records on the Continental Congress and they were doing the Constitution, they began to reinstitute European law and closure, one of the private property. They couldn't deal with slave ownership. That's going to come back to you. We told them at the time, ‘How can you have a democracy when you imprison men, people? And where's the women? Where's the women in your democracy?' The way I look at it like if you were looking from the moon down to the earth at that particular time you would see a great light as they picked up this idea of democracy. And then if you watched over a period of time you would see that light diminish until finally in 1843 or 1844 they start talking about manifest destination. And Christian rule and Christian law has always been a problem with us and for us. They've always called us heathens, they've always called us pagans and they said we have no standing because we're not Christian. So the whole taking of land across America is based on that Law of Discovery, not being Christian. It still prevails. It's right in the U.S. constitutional law now. So it's tough to do, tough to beat."

Schooling for leadership included hard work and lacrosse

Oren Lyons:

"As I was growing up, my father left the family and I became the hunter. My mother was tremendous, a woman of great integrity, never said much but kept that integrity. She never drank, she never...anything like that, just took care of the family, a very strong woman. And I quit school in the seventh grade because I didn't like the teachers, they didn't like me and I knew they weren't doing right by the people there and I just didn't get along with them, I challenged them all the time. Life was miserable for me. So I would set my shotgun aside or my fish pole and then as soon as I'd get off the bus down at the school I'd walk back and I'd spend the day in the woods fishing. And those years probably were my best teachers because I learned a lot about developing your own character. When we were growing up we had to go and cut wood and carry poles, hardwood poles, 30 feet long. One pole of oak is very, very heavy. And you carry four or five or those poles, put them on your shoulder, that's a big load. But all the kids were up there. We cut the wood, trimmed the wood, wearing sneaks in the wintertime, colder than a son of a gun. There'd be snot all over our sleeve from wiping our nose and getting the wood back and cutting it up and bringing it in. It was hard work, took a lot of character; that built character. It was good training, probably one of the best trainings I had because it built that reserve, that strength that you get from finishing something, getting it done. So I didn't really go to school. I was an athlete and we were playing lacrosse already and that's part of the fabric of the community. And your heroes are the lacrosse players and even the ceremonies in the Long House includes lacrosse. It's not a game; it's part of the fabric of our nation. And that's how I grew up, grew up playing the game and that's what gave me the offer to get to school."

Drafted in 1950 Oren found the discipline of the Army useful

Oren Lyons:

"I don't know how they drafted us because we weren't supposed to get drafted but I did. Anyway, I wound up in the Army and I said, ‘Well, this is...I don't know how I'm going to do here,' but I found out that they recruited for the Airborne came around and you get $50 more for being in the Airborne, for hazardous duty pay. I said, ‘$50 more a month. I've got to go there,' because I was sending money home to the family. So I got $50 more. So we got into the Airborne, went into the 82nd Airborne, went down to the jump school down in Fort Benning, Georgia. And then I was assigned to the 82nd in Fayetteville, North Carolina. We jumped around different places. We had to, we were so-called Honor Guard of America and if anything happened directly to the...we were the ones to be there first. So we were prepared all the time for combat. So I learned a lot, I thought the Army discipline was good for me. I didn't like it at all. When they captured me the first time they put me in jail for truancy I guess and I was just like a wolf. I didn't want to be in there, I didn't like the man and I didn't like the ideas, I didn't like anything and this truant officer, I still remember him sitting there chewing on a cigar looking at me and saying, he says, ‘You know, you dumb Indians,' he says, ‘you can't even talk, you can't answer, you can't answer me why are you not in school.' And I couldn't answer him. I was mad and I was thinking, ‘Gee, maybe I can get one punch in on this guy.' And he was looking at me and he says, ‘Don't even think about it.' And they put me in...they locked me up. I hated that. But I went to work and I did all the little stuff you do to get by. Hunted and worked in labor, dug ditches, did all of that."

Leaving school so young yet becoming a professor

Oren Lyons:

"So when I got out I went back to playing lacrosse again right away and doing a lot of heavy drinking and doing a lot of what kids do at that age. I was boxing; I was boxing at the time. I boxed before I went in; I boxed in the Army. And when I came out I was asked by the coach from Syracuse University he said, ‘Well, why don't you come up here, play lacrosse for us and box for us.' I said, ‘Well, I don't know. I don't think I've got the credentials.' He said, ‘Well, you've been in the Army.' He says, ‘You know, take the GED test in the Army.' I said, ‘Well, I don't know.' I said, ‘I took a lot of tests.' And he said, ‘Well, why don't we look for your tests and why don't you make application. Come on up.' So they recruited me. And when I graduated four years later, he said, ‘You know, we still haven't got your records. We were looking all through the Army.' He said, ‘Maybe, maybe we can just forget looking for them now.' But I had done very well. I made the Dean's List. I was a good painter; I was an artist, that's what I did. And so I did very well in the art course. I drew all A's and I had suffered through English and suffered through all the other courses but I managed to get through. And as a matter of fact they have an award they give to the outstanding Junior scholastic athlete and they call it the Orange Key Award and I won that award my junior year. And so it's a contradiction of moving away from school so early and then finally actually winding up to be a professor at the end of the day."

Art, New York City and lacrosse

Oren Lyons:

"The artwork is what got me into the university. So when I graduated I wanted to go south. I did very well in the lacrosse. In 1957 we had the first undefeated team at Syracuse University and we had an amazing team. Jim Brown, the big football player, was on our team. Billy Brown played for the Boston Patriots. It just went on. We had this amazing team. We were undefeated and we beat West Point, the other undefeated team in the country that year. It was a great year. I became an All American, made All American the next couple of years and then I went south. I went right to New York City. I was going to take up art, staying in this little room in the YMCA and running around looking for a job and carrying my portfolio around realizing, ‘Hey, this isn't going to be so easy,' and New York City being the Mecca of artists and competition. The amazing thing I learned about New York is nobody talks to anybody. Nobody's friendly, nobody says anything. You can just not talk to anybody for days on end except in an interview or wherever you're going, just no conversation. It's strange coming from a Nation where everybody talks to everybody. But anyway, a knock came on my door at the YMCA and there was a short man, bald headed and he had a mustache, gray mustache, and he says, ‘I'm Dr. Schoenbaum, Pinty Schoenbaum.' Pinty, they called him Pinty. He said, ‘I want to ask you if you're going to play lacrosse for the New York City Lacrosse Club.' He had tracked me from Syracuse and found out where the heck I was, don't ask me how. But he said, ‘Play for our team.' I said, ‘Sure. You've got a team down here?' ‘Yeah, we've got a team.' And so that helped me a great deal. I moved right into...I had some kind of friendships again, back to lacrosse again."

His career as an artist and art director

Oren Lyons:

"I finally landed a job at Norcross Greetings Cards and it was kind of like a little safe haven, didn't pay much at all but it was recognized in New York City as probably one of the best training grounds for art there is, practical training. Because with all my four years of college and abilities up there I took one look at my work and I looked at the professional work that I was up against and I said, ‘I need to refine, I need to get back to...get up to standard here, long way to go.' So I took a job there, started our $45 a week, coming out of university and I could have made that $45 in half a day working on construction. But it was a real shock to me to do it but I took the job. I was more in the art directing because I was doing artwork at night. I was freelancing all over and I had a lot of work. I was a good artist and I was doing a lot of illustration, a lot of sports illustration and I...once people found out who you were and where you then you could work. I was more or less running an ad agency right out of the company too because we had 250 artists and every one of those artists that was at Norcross was a very independent artist on their own. They were all freelancing and Norcross was easy to...easy work for a real professional. And I was doing my own work, I was doing a lot of illustration. I was getting a reputation. But I was not liking New York. Things were changing, I had children now and I didn't like the idea of bringing them up in town. You can't leave a child two feet from you, you cannot. You just have to tie them together. You just don't dare let a little girl wander. So it was constantly to keep the kids in the school and I moved out to New Jersey. And when I moved to New Jersey I played for the New Jersey Lacrosse Club and I commuted back and forth, bought a house out there. But still I didn't want to bring the kids up in a foreign country so I said, ‘Well, I want to go back home.' And it was about that time, '67 when Clan Mother asked me to be leader chief and I agreed but it was about the end of my marriage too because my wife didn't really agree with that. She did not want to be sharing me with the Nation."

Returning to Onondaga and working for Indian culture and sovereignty across the nation

Oren Lyons:

"And when I got back, this was 1970, when I got back they said, ‘Well, you have a lot of knowledge. We want you to go to school and learn about museums. We want to put a museum here.' So I took a master's course at Cooperstown, which was again a very good event for me. I learned a lot about museum technology and history and that was a dual course I was taking, History and Museum Technology. So when I came out from there I was qualified to teach and John Mohawk and Barry White and several of the young people they said, ‘You've got to come to Buffalo and you've got to start an Indian class at the university.' They said, ‘We've got Black studies, they've got Women's studies, they've got Puerto Rican studies, they've got no Indian studies.' So they were really on my case and they followed me everywhere I went and by that time I was moving. When I came back home I was working with the leaders already and we traveled. We took what they call the Unity Caravan, which was a composite of leaders from Oklahoma, Hopi and Iroquois and we just went...we did a tour of the whole United States stopping, telling people at the time the importance of keeping your language, the importance of keeping your traditions and we were a traditional group and we made this circle four times. We went around, four years we went around. We were at Alcatraz. We stopped when they were having the problems there and helped the spirit of the people cause they didn't have any elders there. And so they were so happy when all these...carloads of...we traveled in a caravan of 20-25 cars and we would just come to an Indian territory, set up camp and talk about tradition. And a lot of the people I see today who are now leaders remember when we came through and how that influenced them and how they remembered the importance of your language and the importance of your tradition and customs and your land. And I was in my really strong years and I felt that I was doing something positive."

A new chapter in the lacrosse story, the Iroquois Nationals

Oren Lyons:

"In 1983 I got a call from my friend Roy Simmons, Jr. whose father was the coach, Roy Simmons, Sr. And now, Slugger we call him, Roy, Jr., was now the head coach of Syracuse University and he said, ‘Can you bring an Iroquois team down and play Canada at the NCAA finals?' And I said, ‘Gee, I don't know. We haven't played field lacrosse in a long while. I don't know.' He said, ‘Well, think about it. We'd like to have an exhibition match.' And so I thought about it and I said, ‘Geez, why not.' So we did. We got the boys together and we took a team down there. It wasn't easy and we got roundly defeated but the boys liked the game. I said, ‘Hey, this was a good game, let's get back into it.' The following year, in '84, we played at the Olympics in L.A. and we had the consent of the Olympics because we were promoting the return of Jim Thorpe's medals. And it was called the Jim Thorpe Memorial Powwow and Native Games. And the center was going to be the Iroquois Nationals playing Canada again. But England heard about it, they called us up and said, ‘Hey, you guys are having a game, you didn't invite us.' I said, ‘Well, yeah, but you're so far.' ‘We'll be there.' England flew in. Australia was touring Canada. They had a lacrosse team touring. They came down. So there we had...and then the United States said, ‘How the heck do you guys have a game and you didn't tell us.' So we had the five nations playing again and we had the Native games down there and we did very well. And so England said, ‘You boys play a very good game.' They said, ‘You want to come over and play us over next year?' We said, ‘Well, we're traveling on the Iroquois passport. You understand.' They said, ‘We'll manage, don't worry about that.' So we went over and we were very successful. We won every game but one over there and very happy. The boys were getting into the game so we said, ‘Well, we want to get into the International Lacrosse Federation, let's get into the big game.' So we petitioned and we had a lot of problems with Canada and so we were not allowed to compete in the '86 games but we ran our own tournament here at UB and we invited everybody but Canada cause they were hosting the game. And in '87 they called me and they said, ‘We had a vote, the ILF had a vote and they want to vote the Iroquois in as a full member nation,' the International Lacrosse Federation. I said, ‘On our terms.' They said, ‘On your terms.' I said, ‘Great.' And they said, ‘And get ready for the games in Perth, Australia, in 1990. So while all this stuff was going on we filled the team and we took a team over to the Perth games, world games in 1990. There were four teams when we joined. We became the fifth nation and now there's 14 nations including South Korea, Japan, Czech Republic, Germany, Sweden. They're all playing and Tonga wants a team. This is all going on, this is all part of this whole fabric in the meantime, which affords great recognition to the Haudenosaunee because when we play, our flag goes up with whoever we're playing. So the Haudenosaunee flag goes up with the USA or Canada or England or whoever. Well, the sovereignty as I was talking about, the Iroquois Nationals are certainly a very serious element of manifestation of sovereignty and so that means we have to deal with state departments around the world, it means we have to have Visas because our passports are Iroquois. So it's advancing our culture, it's advancing our presence, it's advancing people's understanding of Indian nations, internationally. It's certainly developing a better understanding among our own people, respect for other nations, respect for other people, respect for the American flag. If you go back to the times when we were battling at Wounded Knee and around and flying the flag upside down or burning it or whatever else, now when the United States plays the Iroquois our men stand at attention, take their hats off in respect. That's a big move. That's a big change but it's mutual respect is what it is and that's what brings that. So they understand that they've grown, our players have an amazing growth sense. Now they've traveled, they've been around the world, they play Japan, we've played in Australia, we've played in England, we've play Canada, we've played all over. That's exposure for our own people to learn about other nations, other people and the game itself is really founded because it's our game and so we're like the grandfathers of the sport and we get that respect from around the world. We work with them very well and it's a great avenue, it's a great venue for interaction, positive."

Working with Indigenous people internationally and with the United Nations

Oren Lyons:

"So on the other hand when we move into the U.N. and we're in the working group for Indigenous populations, the discussion still is and we still have not cleared the fact that we are peoples, not populations. ‘Peoples' with an S. ‘People' is generic, peoples means specific. So when we try to put our names as peoples the U.N. still calls us populations. And of course if you're a population then there's no human rights for populations. So the discussion is really fine tuned and our biggest adversary is the United States and the issue is the issue of the self determination, the right to self determination. And they say, ‘Well, you have a right to self-determination as far as we allow.' And we say, ‘The right to self-determination is absolute and there's no modification or else it's not self-determination.' But for Indigenous people, yes, it is. Of all the people in the world, when you have the human rights of the world, they don't apply to Indigenous people. We had to write our own. Why? The issue's still land. Land, who owns it and who are you. It goes back to the time of Columbus; it goes back to basic issues. The issue you brought up right now. They're saying, ‘And you can't tax.' So all of that is still unresolved and the United States has a very hard time to acknowledge first of all the damage they've done to Indian nations. They have a hard time to look at that. They have a hard time to acknowledge the lands that were taken, stolen. Even today they can't bring themselves to they are in Iraq, they're looking for $87 million to rebuild Iraq and they can't pay the $8 billion that they stole from the Department of Interior of Indian land. So where do you go for equity as the peacemaker said. We have to go to the international field and that's why we're in Europe. We can talk to them over there, we talk to the State Department over there but hard to get them here. And the whole issue of Indigenous peoples reflects earth and reflects land. Australia: the lands taken from Australia. Now they have recently won a case where they have agreed that the basis of land taking, which was the Law of Discovery, the Supreme Court of Australia says, ‘That's not a valid position.' That court case rocked everything everywhere around the world because you go to South Africa, you go anywhere, all the colonization that's taken on is on that basis including the United States and Canada. So we're still, when you say ‘the land of the free, the home of the brave and the land of the free' you're talking about Indians because...and you come down to the issues that they cannot resolve and get these things ready and clean their house. I'm talking about the United States and Canada and Central and South America as well. If they can't clean their house how can they go around the world trying to clean everybody else's house?"

Present and future dangers facing Creation

Oren Lyons:

"And coming up on us now is global warming. Now these issues that are coming here are very, very serious. They're going to make any conflagration that you have around the world minor when they start to manifest. And actually I've been studying this and I've been...most of my work in the past three or four years has been in that area because the danger is so evident and we're pushing toward an ice age. We're forcing the issue to an ice age and people don't understand that. There's a convection going on in the Atlantic Ocean where fresh water now has reached all the way to the Carolinas from Greenland, from the ice and snow melting in Greenland, fresh water all the way to the Carolinas. This convection is what's slowing down the currents and the University of Bergen in Norway who monitors the gulfstream said that the gulfstream is slowing down and that if it continues to slow down at the past it's slowing down, it could conceivably stop altogether in the next 15 years. Now if you can comprehend what's going to happen if the gulfstream stops and you talk about economies and you talk about what's going to happen, well, it's going to freeze, things are going to freeze. You'll trigger the ice age and it's happened before, it's not something that's never happened before, we're just pushing it with our fossil fuel, over extended fossil fuel use and all that. Global warming is real. I'm now working with scientists who are willing to speak up now. But the attitude of this present administration, the Bush administration on environment is very, very bad about environment. They're just not interested in it, they're interested in business. But it's responsibility, they have to look for the next generation and they're not looking for the next generation. So I asked the scientists, I said, ‘Okay, what happens? What happens does this trigger happen?' They said, ‘Well, it's like a dimmer switch on the wall. You want more light you turn the dimmer switch,' and that's what we're doing with energy, more and more, more and more and now we come to the end of the dimmer switch, right? You can't get anymore, but we want more so we hit it once more and now the switch, actually the dimmer switch becomes a switch, it goes from hot to cold, switched. The earth itself has its own systems and when it gets too warm it cools itself off. That's the ice age. So we're pushing that now. Now the [1:02:36] ?? people from off...the marine biology units at the [1:02:42] ?? have said that this convection here is going to cause that, is going to cause the switch to turn. So they asked them, ‘Well, when?' They said, ‘It's all the way down now.' It wasn't there in 1960, nothing. Now the freshwater's all the way down here, it's slowing the current and it'll get farther. The ice is melting faster. We're in a compound. There's a compound of melting. The faster it melts the faster it melts. We're compounding. We have a compound in human population. Put them two together and you have big problem and so why are we in these insane efforts for oil and industry when we're not looking at the big picture and that's my...I said, ‘We've got to look at the big picture,' and I think it's criminal that a government doesn't look to the future and actually tries to cover it, tries to change it. It's very serious."

Amidst much negligence, hopeful signs

Oren Lyons:

"Yeah, there are. Yes, coalition is coming now. Scientists are saying, ‘Yes, we have to speak up.' So yes, on a positive side, we can slow it down if we go into a total mobilization just the way they did on the terrorists, same kind of mobilization. The system is there but it's going to manifest itself now, you're going to start to feel it and it'll get warmer and warmer and warmer and then it's going to switch and that could be in a year's time, that could be ten years. I have no idea. But we're pushing it now and so that's been my message. That was my message to the Bioneers and it goes back to the Peacemaker saying, ‘Don't make a law against that spiritual law,' and that's what we're doing, precisely what we're doing. Challenging that spiritual law, you can't win. My grandson says to me, ‘Grandpa, what's going to happen to me?' Hmm, hard question. That's what the kids are saying, ‘What's going to happen to us? Who's going to look out for us?' And if the adults don't do it, if the families... who is? And that's my message. People can do it. I think very clearly that the fate, our fate is still in the hands of the people. I believe that yet. But we're losing ground. Every day that we don't do something we get closer to the point of no return. So if you're not going to think about your grandchild much less seven generations, it's pretty murky out there right now. So it means that you have to try hard. You've got to maintain your own integrities, you have to maintain your own cultures, your own prayers. I remember Priscilla V. Hill, our elder from the elder circle, she said to me, she says, ‘you know, people forget how powerful prayer is, how strong prayer is.' Our people in particular cause we're spiritual people, we pray a lot and we pray all the time and we believe in a higher power, we believe in the ultimate authorities and we understand a lot of that and that's what the ceremonies are about. That's the integrity. Now if everybody could get on that kind of a line, then we wouldn't have what's going on now. But we have a secular world now. Spirituality is rare. We have commerce."

Promising new alliances

Oren Lyons:

"I think the religions that we have to deal with are the ones that are made here in this United States. They just make their own religion; they become what I call the hard right fundamentalist religion. They're not really listening to the teachings of their teacher. They're making their own statements. So religion has been a spear right into our breast. That's how they came, that was the spear that entered us and it's been a problem but on the other hand in today's times our best allies are religious leaders. So you know, people go, people change, we come to a common belief and we're getting there, getting there. But is it going to be...when? We're in a bind now; we're in a time bind. So I don't know. Gorbachev is a great leader; he's a great environmental leader. Al Gore, if he'd get back into gear. He belonged to that parliament who worked with us, global forum of parliamentary and spiritual leaders. Gore was in there. It's a race. But I think when the manifestations, when the fires get more, which we had all those fires last year, there are going to be more of those. This year, fire's burning up there in British Columbia all over, dry, climate change and we're going to get wind storms. The winds are coming heavier. The slower the ocean goes the quicker it warms up, the quicker it warms up heavier winds and we're spawning these big hurricanes now. We're doing that. So all these things are coming and one of our chief allies is the insurance companies. They're saying, ‘Listen to those people, it's true what they're saying.' They have to pay. And they know what the damage is costing very year, more and more and more. So I don't know politics are so peculiar in this country and around the world. And the avarice of man and the greed, the unleashed greed is fundamental to all of this. Still, I believe that it's still in the hands of the people. If people want to get out there and they want to make themselves known, then things are going to change. If they don't, then you suffer the consequence and it's not happy. But as long as we can, you never take hope away from the people. Hope is always there and I urge the people to take action, do what you have to do. Vote this administration out. That's what's got to be done. They're very, very damaging. I think in this contemporary society everybody has gone kind of a little nuts and the idea of money and this cycle of work that people are in, they've got no time for anything. I feel it."

The future is still in the hands of the people

Oren Lyons:

"This is still a democracy. This is what we helped way back there in 1775. It's a democracy yet and if people act on it, it will be. But if they just submit then that's what's going to happen. It's what I call corporate states. They have more gross national product than most countries. The corporations have allegiance to no one, they don't have any human rights, they don't have any concern about health. They have a concern to put money in the hands of the investors and that's the big deal. We're looking at the kids now and we're going to have the grandchildren and looking at trying to see this future. In the global forum of spiritual and parliamentary leaders after all the years of leading we came to a conclusion. Why were we meeting, what was going to be the substance of this whole thing? And we came to a decision under the leadership of Akio Matsumura who's a brilliant man and a great humanitarian and we came to the conclusion it would be four words, after all our meetings with all our people: value change for survival. We either change our values or we're not going to survive and we've going to have to get back to the basic values of family, of relationship rather than money, acquisition. Private property doesn't work. That's the song of this nation, private property. And so you lose community. The community is what we're after and getting back into the community of the earth itself because that's one big community, we're all one. We're a long ways away from that. But we can do it, we can get back and around the world, yes, they are trying, yes, yes, they are trying. But we have to get better leadership in this country. We have to get leadership with vision and with responsibility to the future. That's what the Peacemaker said, seven generations; make your decision on behalf of seven generations coming. You, yourself, will have peace, that's just common sense. Never give up. That was a big lesson, don't give up. Don't give up on anybody. They can change. In Sweden now we have a coalition of very active people and among them is one of the best filmmakers in Sweden, a very famous man and along with another active person that promotes events and so forth. And they have agreed to do a film on, a feature film on global warming. They said, ‘We know how to do it,' and they've prepared it. And so what I'm trying to do now is get $2 million from somewhere to get this film made and then we'll get it distributed. We want to do it in six languages simultaneously so the message gets to the people and they know how to do that. Now that's urgency, that's awareness that you've got to bill to the people cause leadership knows what's going on. They're just not pressed by the people. So that is one of the things I'm working on. I also work on the Traditional Circle of Indian Elders and Youth on the issue of keeping your culture and so forth. I think the Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse teams is great fun for me and great for everybody and it's a great venue for interaction so I always put a lot of time in that. And teaching is good cause I talk directly to the children. And family, getting back to the family. So that's where I'm at. I work with the Sami people up north and they have the same problems we have. Global warming is really manifesting up there. Ice is melting, a big problem for the reindeer because it melts and freezes and they can't get to the grass, the liken. They can starve in a short time that way. They live on a daily basis. But they have good years and bad years and they have the same problems with the people, there's racism and so forth. Positive though, the government is much more positive over there towards them than here towards us. We shouldn't have to be suing the federal government for money it owes us, that belongs to us."

Building strengths and making peace

Oren Lyons:

"Peace is a dynamic action. Peace is not passive. Peace requires a lot of action and a lot of activity. It's light, it's light and it has to be always pushed, always promoted, always acted upon. On the other hand negative energy is heavy and it's dark and it has its own strength on that. If you stand still, you lose. It's easier to sleep in the morning than to get up. It's easier not to work than to work. It's always easier to do the negative than it is the positive. You have to recognize that and you have to do your own personal battle and you have to make your peace with creation and I would say coming from Priscilla V. Hill, ‘Peace and prayer are powerful.' That's the basis of where you go for your strength. Individually we're not strong enough for anything so we've got to get people back on line, spiritual path. Thomas Benyaka used to say, the old Hopi elder and he made his trips around, all the time he always said the same thing, ‘Prayer, meditation; prayer, meditation,' and that's powerful. So we have a spiritual strength and available, we should use it. It's more powerful than anything and that's the ceremonies. Thanksgiving. We still hold it. I'll say one more thing. In the longest walk there was an elder from Japan, the venerable Fujison. He's 100 years old and he was in charge of the peace Buddhists, they come and they sing that ‘no more [1:19:09] ??' and they play that. That's his people. He instructed them to come on the longest walk with us and they did, they walked the whole way, they're Buddhists. And he came along, later on and he was being pushed in his wheelchair. He had a sticker on the side said, ‘The Longest Walk,' and they hosted us when they had a pagoda in Washington, D.C. and they hosted everybody that came. They had a big meal they cooked for us and everything and they were sitting in a circle on a table and the elders were there, Chief Shenandoah, some elders from Lakota Country, Chief Farmer and I remember Chief Shenandoah saying to him, ‘Why are you here with us? Why have you...what have you...why are you here? Why have you joined us?' And the venerable Fujison said, ‘I have studied human relations around the world,' and he says, ‘I don't think there has been a people that have been more abused and have suffered more than the Native American people.' He said, ‘Yet, you have kept your spiritual center.' He said, ‘It's strong, it's crystallized.' He says, ‘Of course you have all the problems, of course you have this and you have that and you have drinking and drugging and all that.' He said, ‘But you also have kept the spiritual core.' And he says, ‘And I believe that the spiritual center of the earth is here in North America with your people.' That was his statement. I never forgot it cause we don't think that way. We just go along and do what we do. That was his observation and it makes me think every now and then what that means."

The instruction Oren Lyons would leave

Oren Lyons:

"I have two instructions to our nations. Be thank for what you have, there's all the ceremonies. Second instruction was, enjoy life."

The Great Tribal Leaders of Modern Times series and accompanying curricula are for the educational programs of tribes, schools and colleges. For usage authorization, to place an order or for further information, call or write Institute for Tribal Government – PA, Portland State University, P.O. Box 751, Portland, Oregon, 97207-0751. Telephone: 503-725-9000. Email:

[Native music]

The Institute for Tribal Government is directed by a Policy Board of 23 tribal leaders,
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Videotaping and Video Assistance
Chuck Hudson, Jeremy Fivecrows and John Platt of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission

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Photo Credit:
Oren Lyons
The Onondaga Nation

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Mohegan Tribal Council
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© 2004 The Institute for Tribal Government 


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