Iroquois Confederacy

Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse


Officially sanctioned by the Grand Council of Chiefs to represent the Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois) in international lacrosse competition, the Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse Team represents a sovereign nation in world competition. The team — which has won numerous medals and awards — has successfully engaged state departments, embassies, and consulates around the world to recognize Iroquois sovereignty. Team members travel using Haudenosaunee passports and the team has created a corps of Iroquois ambassadors that builds international goodwill and educates fellow athletes, government officials, and the public about the Iroquois–and their role as founders of the sport.

Native Nations
Resource Type

"Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse". Honoring Nations: 2002 Honoree. The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Cambridge, Massachusetts. 2003. Report. 


This Honoring Nations report is featured on the Indigenous Governance Database with the permission of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. 

David Wilkins: Indigenous Governance Systems: Diversity, Colonization, Adaptation, and Resurgence

Native Nations Institute

In this in-depth interview with NNI's Ian Record, federal Indian law and policy scholar David Wilkins discusses the incredible diversity and sophistication of traditional Indigenous governance systems, the profound impacts colonial policies had on those systems, and how Native nations are working to aggressively to reclaim and reshape those systems to meet their contemporary challenges.

Resource Type

Wilkins, David. "Indigenous Governance Systems: Diversity, Colonization, Adaptation, and Resurgence." Leading Native Nations interview series. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, The University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. August 6, 2008. Interview.

Ian Record:

“Welcome to Leading Native Nations, a program of the Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management and Policy at the University of Arizona. I’m your host, Ian Record.

With us today is David Wilkins, a citizen of the Lumbee Nation. He holds the McKnight Presidential Professorship in American Indian Studies and has adjunct appointments in Political Science, Law and American Studies at the University of Minnesota. He is well published in the area of federal Indian policy and tribal governance and recently released a revised edition of American Indian Politics in the American Political System and an edited volume called On the Drafting of Tribal Constitutions by Felix S. Cohen.

David, we wanted to bring you in today to talk about a number of issues and really trace from the beginning tribal governing systems. So I think it’d be best to start at the beginning and talk about, for those people in Indian Country, for those people in mainstream American society who may not be aware, if you could paint a picture for us of the nature, the diversity and the sophistication of Indigenous governance systems in North America before Europeans.”

David Wilkins:

“Well, that’s a very complicated question given the amount of diversity that was evident in what we now know as North America. They estimate over 600 distinctive Native peoples, whether we call them tribes or nations, or increasingly I’m hearing the word bandied about of referring to tribes as 'states,' but the amount of diversity was just tremendous from sophisticated confederacies like the Iroquois Confederacy, the Haudenosaunee, to the Creek peoples of the southeast with their red and white towns spread out over thousands of miles. You had hunting communities, small fishing villages in the Great Lakes area in the northwest, you had the California communities who lived out in the deserts, the many tribes here in Arizona, from the Navajo Nation to the Tohono O’odham peoples and all the peoples throughout the great heartland of North America. And so it’s difficult, there’s no single model, there’s no single framework that can accurately describe this amount of diversity and the very concept of tribal governments itself is a bit of misnomer. In fact, the concept that is most really applicable to describe tribal peoples historically was the notion of tribes as kinship systems because you basically had Native communities who realized that they couldn’t govern themselves if they got too large demographically, so they intentionally kept a lid on their population and tried to maintain a relatively small community because they realized that as long as the kinship system was in place and that only worked when you could remember who your neighbors and your relatives were, that’s when you’re able to govern yourselves and maintain peace and stability and relative harmony. And so the idea of Native peoples and Native communities as governments is a bit of a problematic concept. Although increasingly we refer to Native governments today, there’s still a lot of discussion and debate. And when I’m teaching my classes, I often get my students to really think about this and ask them to consider whether the Navajo people spread out across four states basically over 30,000 square miles of land constituted an actual people or a large extended kinship system or did they in fact constitute a government since they never actually met as a collective body ever until they were essentially imprisoned at Fort Sumner in New Mexico. And so diversity and differentiation all tied into the various value systems of Native peoples and the geographic places where they inhabited and the kind of subsistence that they depended on. All that affected the kind of systems that were in place.”

Ian Record:

“The research is replete with example after example among these traditional governing systems of these various peoples of effective institutions that they had developed over long periods of time to resolve conflict, to advance their priorities as a community, to relate with other groups that were distinct from them. Could you talk about just briefly -- and perhaps provide a couple examples that maybe immediately come to mind -- about just how robust that was prior to colonization?”

David Wilkins:

“Well, my wife is Navajo and so when I married into the Navajo Nation and became an instructor at Navajo Community College, now Dine College, my background was in federal Indian policy and governance and I wanted to teach a course on Navajo history. So I immediately began to collect research about the Navajo people. There wasn’t a whole lot available at the time. There are a few historical studies, a few anthropological studies, but I eventually was able to cobble together enough information to construct a course. And what I learned about the Navajo is that given the breadth of their coverage and how much land they inhabited historically, ¦today the reservation’s 25,000 square miles. Historically, it was much broader than that, possibly twice as large as that. And given that, Navajos who lived around what is present day Tuba City never met Navajos who lived around Farmington, New Mexico. But what they had was a system of governance, and for them I would call it a governance system, which was the '[Navajo language],' which was a regional association, if you will, of extended families who would appoint or elect individual leaders. And every two to four years these 12 [Navajo language] families, extended families would gather together to discuss issues of security, discuss issues of farming, to discuss issues of harmony or whatever the issues were at the time. And the individuals who constituted the leaders of those [Navajo language] extended families were called '[Navajo language]' and they were very powerful individuals. But their power was not based on coercion, it wasn’t based on force, it was based on the art of persuasion, the art of being able to express orally what they wanted their community to do and if the community decided not to do that, they wouldn’t do that and there was no force. In fact, if you can, ¦when you think about a list of attributes or characteristics that could be used to describe tribal peoples generally and it’s not easy to do that, but as someone who teaches this I try to come up with a list of characteristics, but this idea of the lack of coercive power, a lack of authoritative force, because that just wasn’t the way tribal peoples operated. It really was historically a consensus-based system and it was based on this concept of kinship with everyone being related to one another either by blood or by marriage or by association. And so the Navajo, with that system, and it was a very effective system for them, so that when the Spaniards first arrived in the late 1500s and sought to impose their power and their force over the Navajo people, they might be able to militarily defeat this one extended family and then they would sometimes force a treaty negotiation to take place and a week later they would get attacked by another Navajo [Navajo language] realizing that they weren’t subject to the Spanish power or control. And so that’s one example.

And you have examples like the Iroquois Confederacy that I mentioned earlier, with their 50 chiefs with powers that were laid out in wampum belts historically. The earliest constitution in the world most people now acknowledge, even though people that write about U.S. constitutional history don’t quite want to acknowledge that just yet, but when their constitution was in fact written down and non-Iroquois began to study it and examine the kind of provisions that you see laid out in there, you see initiative, you see referendum, you see equality for women, you see equal suffrage, you see checks and balances and you see the amendment process and you see all these kind of provisions that many of which show up in the U.S. Constitution that was developed in the late 1700s. And so you have different, ¦with so many different tribes you have multiple possible governing arrangements that were out there, but many of them sharing again common values based on mutual respect that is the system of kinship, a system of shared spiritual values and traditions, a shared language, a shared history, sacred history and most importantly, a shared sacred landscape that constituted their original homeland. And so those were the major factors that I think you can say linked Indigenous peoples together historically. And while those were important, the distinctions and the differences were still rampant, which is one reason that you would have conflicts on occasion, which then led to early treaty-making processes. So by the time Europeans finally arrived and began to want to negotiate treaties with us, we knew all about the treaty process because we also had engaged in it because tribal nations were never the idealic, pristine communities that we’re sometimes depicted as. We were human collectivities and human beings by nature and by human nature are going to engage in conflict at times.”

Ian Record:

“You mentioned 'checks and balances,' which is a term that is -- if you spend a lot of time working with tribal governments, working with elected officials, spending time in tribal communities, particularly those that are kind of wrestling with this issue of governance and is their governing system effective or are there some shortcomings to it -- you hear it a lot as tribes work to reclaim their systems of government from colonial systems that were thrust upon them over the course of the decades and the centuries. Another term you hear a lot is 'separation of powers' and you’ll sometimes hear this refrain around those two critical issues that, ‘Oh, that’s the white man’s principles. That’s something that they have,’ but that’s really not the case. If you look back at traditional governance systems and the Oglala Lakota are a perfect example, they had checks and balances, they had separation of powers to ensure that there was a rule of law and that no one was above that rule of law.”

David Wilkins:

“Absolutely, and that’s something that tribes were never given credit for until very recently, and we’re still sometimes denied our legitimacy as governing systems because we’re ¦outsiders who look at our communities still don’t see us even when we have very clear separations of powers and checks and balances in our institutions of governance today. But historically when the first Europeans arrived and met the various Native nations that they did, they came in of course with preconceived ideas and only their own Euro, European mindset and cultural paradigm to draw from and so they couldn’t see any immediate resemblance in our societies to what they exhibited, coming from the very feudal system that they did. The kings and queens that governed their countries, you see certain tribal leaders in the East Coast named 'King Powhatan' and 'Prince So and So' when those simply did not exist. And yet, certainly as you were saying, there were inherent checks and balances that were laid out. They weren’t called legislative and executive and judicial, but the essence of them, of what those three different branches do and how they check one another to maintain some relative power was quite evident, and it’s especially true for a number of tribes where you had peace-making powers and war-making powers separated. You had that in Iroquois, you had that in the Creek, in the Cherokee, you had that in a number of tribal communities, because they understood that someone who’s skilled in the art of diplomacy would not necessarily be the individual that you’d want to lead a war party on and vice versa. Someone skilled in the art of taking a scalp wouldn’t be someone that you would want, or would have the skills necessary, to negotiate a treaty of alliance with a neighboring tribe. And so tribes had all sorts of these institutions of governance that were in place, although they were rarely articulated formally and they certainly weren’t articulated in writing, but they were articulated in the stories, in the origin account, in the creation accounts and had Europeans taken the time to listen to us, they would have heard this. Whether or not they would have respected it is another question and we’ll never know that, but it’s important for your listening audience to realize that checks and balances and separations of powers were clearly evident even when you would look at a community of say 300 members, 300 citizens or 300 clan beings and see, you wouldn’t be able to see a separation there and yet in the roles, in the responsibilities that were clearly articulated in the various customs and traditions and duties of both the elected officials and the officials who would be appointed, given their ceremonial knowledge, they were clearly present.”

Ian Record:

“That’s a good segue into my next question, which really delves into what happened to those traditional systems of government, governance that were so vibrant in these communities when Europeans came and just how profound was the transformation?”

David Wilkins:

“It was obviously profound. It had to be an absolutely devastating period of time, from the initial influenzas and waves of diseases that swept through Indigenous communities and just wiped out entire nations. The depopulation figure is roughly around between 80 to 90 percent, and so when you lose that many of your people in one fell swoop and sometimes it would be a swoop that would be a recurring kind of swoop because it takes generations for communities to build up any kind of immunity to diseases that they historically had not experienced. So that was the first devastating blow and so you lose your elders, you lose those individuals who had the weakest immune systems because of age and yet they’re the ones that were the repositories of all, of most of the knowledge, the traditional knowledge, the songs, the ceremonies, the tradition, the values in all of that. And so that was the first factor, and then of course with the conflict that then ensued as the various European powers competed for a permanent foothold here -- the Spanish and the French and English and the Dutch and the Swiss and the Russians and others. Those conflicts in which they would try to play off tribe against tribe, sometimes segments of tribes against other segments of tribes, caused additional severe problems. Trade goods and the items, the material goods that Europeans brought with them was another factor that affected how we operated amongst ourselves, how we governed amongst ourselves, and how we engaged in intergovernmental politics with other peoples.

Then, of course, you had the religious dimension, the missionaries, the Jesuits and the Franciscans and the Catholics and the Presbyterians and all the various Protestant denominations all competing for the souls of Indigenous peoples, because they thought that we were the peoples who were heathens and savages and who had no bona fide religions that they had to show any respect for. And so it was a combination of these factors and many others that weighed in. Boarding schools come in at a later date and the general assimilative process and the coercive power of that assimilative process, it really kicks into high gear in the 1870s when the federal government decides that they’re going to 'de-Indianize' us culturally speaking. They had given up on the extermination phase because it wasn’t economically sensible to them and it also violated and contradicted their own Christian and democratic heritage, and so they decided they would try to civilize us and Christianize us and Americanize us by allotting us and doing the various things. And so all of those forces weighed in variably on various tribes of course, but every tribe was impacted.

Some were just impacted to where we no longer know who they are anymore or the remnants of them would merge in with other tribes and so you have really a polyglot system that ensues and so tribes throughout all this period, this profound and very long transitional period, are finding, ‘How can we survive this, how do we weather this persistent storm that just doesn’t seem to cease?’ And what you find is tribes engaging in all sorts of strategic and innovative and desperate measures to try and still find some way to maintain some measure of self-governing capabilities and they did remarkable jobs of that. Even in facing the teeth of full coercive assimilation and full federal power, tribes were still relying upon traditional elements and traditional knowledge and vestiges of traditional thought and traditional systems and traditional institutions that still enabled them to remember who they were even when it was thought that they were no longer there and yet they were able to somehow weather most of that. Even though we are certainly not the people that we were in 1492, but then again, no people is the same. So yeah, we were devastated on all sorts of levels, but Indigenous peoples here and abroad are the most resilient of peoples and we found ways to survive, we found ways to manage, we found ways to cope and we did that by altering our traditions, by altering our languages, altering our institutions of governance and still coping.”

Ian Record:

“So I think a lot of historians would agree and scholars such as yourself would agree that that systematic dismantling of traditional governing systems on the part of the federal government in the United States and the Canadian government up in Canada for First Nations pretty much continued uninterrupted until about the 1930s, when there was this kind of -- and people may disagree about the extent to which this shift occurred -- but everyone acknowledges there was a shift in how the federal powers that be were going to treat tribes, the latitude they were going to afford them to make certain decisions about their own affairs, about their own lands, about their own peoples, and that in the United States took the form of the Indian Reorganization Act. Can you describe for us what that process entailed I guess for most tribes, the typical experience of the IRA in terms of its implementation and what that standard boilerplate system, as it’s so often called, looked like and how that perhaps didn’t jive with these traditional systems that we’ve been discussing.”

David Wilkins:

“That’s a very good question and it’s a very complicated question. And as you know, from the book that I just edited that Felix Cohen wrote, although he wrote it as a legal memorandum in 1934, the Indian Reorganization Act was drafted by Felix Cohen because he was hired specifically to write the initial draft of that, hired by John Collier and Nathan Margold, but first let me give you some context leading up to that because it’s important. As I was saying, with all these factors that had devastated tribes, even with all of that devastation and catastrophic loss of life and of institutions and so on, in 1929 [Indian Affairs] Commissioner Charles Burke issued a circular in which he asked every superintendent under his charge to describe what kind of business council or other governing system was in place on their reservation that they were overseeing. He sent it out to over 120 superintendents, 78 superintendents responded in writing, and I was able to secure a copy of their written responses. And as I read through them a couple years ago, I was absolutely flabbergasted at the diversity of governing arrangements that tribes had concocted, sometimes on their own, sometimes in conjunction with well-intentioned missionaries, sometimes through other entrepreneurs who would come in thinking that they had what it would take to help to save this particular tribe. But in many cases you had the agents responding to the commissioner’s call by saying, ‘They don’t have a business council, but they have some form of constitution and I don’t know how they got that, but they have that.’ Or they would say in the case of multiple, of many of the pueblo communities, ‘They have very traditional, very organic governments that I just can’t seem to dislodge despite my best efforts. And as long as they have those, they’re never going to be a civilized community even though they’ve very peaceful people of course.’ And you see all this frustration on the part of a lot of these agents describing the fact that there is still a lot of traditional knowledge, traditional institutions that were still in place in 1929.

Now this is just five years before John Collier comes on the scene to save us from ourselves ostensibly and from Christian missionaries and state officials and so on. But the presumption of a lot of federal policy makers by the time Collier comes on the scene under the [Indian] New Deal is that Indian tribes are essentially bereft of any kind of governance, least of all traditional governance. And yet when Cohen was hired, he also knew virtually nothing about Indians, but he began to travel almost immediately and began to learn, and during the summer months he and his wife bought a cabin in the Adirondack Mountains and he lived near Ray Fadden, who was a Mohawk traditional person who began to instruct Cohen on traditional knowledge, particularly among the Iroquois people. And Cohen began to learn and began to gather together all the evidence of existing constitutions that were still in play in Indian Country. And by 1934, Cohen issued a statement in the beginning of one of his books where he says, ‘There are some 60 tribes that have constitutions and there are lots of other tribes who still have remnants of traditional governance that has somehow survived this overwhelming force of coercive assimilation.’ And he was absolutely enthralled by that and as you read through his legal memorandum, you see him saying, ‘We want to find, I want to find a way to incorporate this traditional knowledge into these IRA constitutions.’

Now of course as you and I were talking earlier, that wasn’t always the case in specific tribal communities. But when Collier ultimately gets hold of the draft that Cohen had drafted in the IRA form, what Collier really had in mind was he envisioned tribes as municipal bodies basically, as 'mini cities' if you will. He had respect for tribal cultural sovereignty, he didn’t have a whole lot of respect for our political or legal sovereignty, even though he realized that treaties should be upheld, that the federal government had a trust responsibility to tribal peoples and tribal lands and resources and rights. And yet when you read through the IRA, a very comprehensive measure by the standards of that period, even though it had been whittled down from a 40-page bill to a four-page bill, by the fact that it stopped the allotment process, by the fact that it encouraged tribes to form a government, a government obviously that would be encouraged by federal officials to follow a constitutional framework, even though they didn’t have to do that. And a number of tribes rejected the IRA, which was in itself a new innovation under John Collier, because all the prior legislation dating back to the 1870s up to the IRA itself, they were unilaterally imposed on tribes, and [with] the IRA, tribes had an opportunity to choose whether or not to come under its rubric. So there were, it’s a very complicated and a very almost a schizophrenic piece of legislation, because you had John Collier and cohort saying, ‘We respect tribes. They should have the right to exhibit their cultural identities and exercise some measure of self-administration,’ really, I wouldn’t call it 'self-governance,' but it was really 'self-administration.' And yet when you read many of the IRA constitutions that were approved, many of the major decisions had to be approved by John Collier and his office and the Secretary of Interior. And so you had the federal government basically telling tribes two very different kinds of things: ‘We respect your right to have a measure of self-governance, and yet it still mush comport with our views on what that might look like.’

And so...but the IRA is a piece of legislation that’s been written about a lot, but not enough people have really closely examined how it came to pass, what the actual mood of the country was at the time and more importantly, how the IRA was implemented on the reservations that did in fact adopt it, because it’s a much more variegated process than tribes are given credit for. And so this concept of the IRA and a model constitution that was a boilerplate that was simply thrust down the throats of tribes, my research of Felix Cohen’s papers disputes that entirely, as did Elmer Rusco’s wonderful book, A Fateful Time, that came out in 2000. And so we have a growing body of evidence, which suggests it’s much more complicated than that. Certainly there were some tribes that faced a tremendous amount of pressure from Collier and cohort to adopt the IRA, like the Navajo Nation, who ultimately still rejected the IRA and don’t have a constitution to this day, over Collier’s strenuous objections. And yet in other cases, you have situations in which the IRA was very quickly -- and very easily it seems -- adopted and it has become the basis of their governing system and they’re doing quite well with it. And so until we have much more detailed individual case studies of all, both the IRA and the non-IRA tribes and what was happening in the mid-1930s, we’re not going to know for sure, we’re not going to know definitively what really transpired.”

Ian Record:

“As with everything across Native nations, it’s very, very difficult to generalize or to oversimplify the complexity of experiences, of governing institutions, of expressions of sovereignty and the rest of it. There were across a number of IRA tribes these common provisions that were derived somewhere in Washington in some office. And one of those that you commonly see in numerous IRA constitutions is this question of judicial function and judicial authority, which more often, not more often than not, but oftentimes was neglected or was left up to the council to decide. And I was wondering if you could talk about some of those common provisions that are so often studied and researched in the context of IRA, particularly in the context of contemporary governing systems among Native nations and what some of those legacies are of some of those common provisions.”

David Wilkins:

“Well, when you look at constitutions of not only tribes, but of states, when you look at the U.S. Constitution, when you look at international states and their constitutions, you’re going to find common provisions. In almost all constitutions around the world you’re going to have an executive entity, you’re going to have something that performs legislative functions, in many you’re going to have something that performs a judicial function, you’re going to have in many cases an articulated Bill of Rights or something like that, you’re going to have something dealing with elections. So you’re going to find common provisions in constitutions no matter at what level of governance you’re looking at. But when you look at the IRA constitutions, certainly in the book that I edited of Cohen, I found a copy of a model constitution that he or someone on his staff, on a tribal organizing committee, had developed. Again, we don’t have any proof that all tribes received this. In fact, all we have is a bit of evidence that some tribes received it. In fact, Cohen himself goes out of the way on the first page of this legal memorandum to say, ‘I’m not going to, I don’t want this canned constitution sent out because many tribes will simply adopt it wholeheartedly.’ And so that didn’t take place to my knowledge, and I’ve researched his papers pretty darn thoroughly, but we do know that some tribes saw that model and we know that Cohen and his organizing committee staff held a number of congresses, 10 congresses throughout the country in which they explained the IRA, in which they explained the constitutional process and got a lot of feedback from tribes. Again, this was another major innovation from all the previous 50 years of legislation, tribes were given an opportunity to respond to this law and the law was in fact amended based on many of these tribal comments.

But for example, with the judicial branch, you’re right. If you look at many of the IRA constitutions that were in fact adopted, became law, most of them lack a separate judicial function. Cohen addressed that specifically in his legal memorandum. And his argument was that most tribes, at that time, he thought, were so cohesive, were small enough that basically a unitary government would suffice. He said it would be expensive, it would be duplicative and it would really cause problems if tribes that are very small tried to create three separate branches of government. He said historically, most tribes didn’t have that articulated clearly and that’s true. And I’ve heard someone as knowledgeable as Sam Deloria make a similar argument. ‘If you have a tribe that has less than 1,000 citizens and living on a very small patch of land, does it really make sense to have three separate branches of government and to try and, how do you staff those? Where do you get the actual human power to make that kind of thing happen?’ And so I think that’s one reason that most of the IRA constitutions don’t have judicial systems. They weren’t told they couldn’t have them and some in fact do incorporate them in their governing systems. And yet again, we need additional detailed case studies to really examine and articulate why some have them and some don’t.

But the idea of provisions and comprovisions is an important element. And the thing that’s always bothered me about the IRA, given John Collier’s obvious respect and support for tribal cultural sovereignty and cultural authority and identity, is the fact that before the IRA, tribes had to get the Secretary of Interior’s approval less than they did after the IRA was adopted. So that’s a telling statistic that Vine Deloria and Clifford Lytle revealed in their study of the IRA. And so in fact John Collier and the Secretary of Interior’s office had more discretionary power over tribes who adopted the IRA after that law became functional than they had over tribes before that. And so that’s a telling statistic and that’s one that always had rubbed me wrong and it’s always left me very concerned about John Collier’s real intention, because if he was really intent on supporting a measure of tribal self-governance or self-administration or self-rule, why would he require absolutely most tribes to consult with him or get his or his boss’s, the Secretary of Interior’s permission before they could sell land, buy land, do anything involving trust resources. It just doesn’t make any sense. And yet there’s that mindset of federal paternalism that was still very powerful, still very regnant in the 1930s that will continue to persist up into the present day, although it’s not quite as intense today as it was back then.”

Ian Record:

“I’m glad you just mentioned the present day, because that’s where I wanted to move next. I think it’s good to move now from essentially trying to read the tea leaves of what these architects of the IRA were thinking back then to what’s the legacy of IRA today? Again, it’s impossible to generalize, but one of the things I’ve been struck by in my work with the Native Nations Institute is, as you get past the mid-1970s and the passage of the Indian Self-Determination Act and you see tribes beginning to aggressively assert sovereignty and strategically think about how best to do that, how best to exercise that, you’re seeing a groundswell of constitutional reform, particularly among those tribes who had IRA systems of government essentially unchanged since the 1930s. What do you think really sparked, what was at the root of that? And have many tribes just simply outgrown the IRA governing system?”

David Wilkins:

“I think peoples do. Governments that don’t have amendment processes that allow their communities to mature and to grow and evolve don’t last. And I think as a part of sort of, as a part of that mindset of federal paternalism that even after the IRA and even after tribes had adopted a constitution -- and I think again this was over John Collier and Felix Cohen’s heads -- I think many local Indian superintendents still refused to recognize and respect the inherent sovereignty of those tribes, to respect their constitutional validity as valid governments. And so that was an ongoing problem. And so it really wasn’t until the 1950s in the wake of the termination era, which really galvanized Native peoples throughout the country, those that faced immediate termination and thought that they might be facing it somewhere down the road, that created a backlash and really fired up Indigenous peoples led by the small fishing tribal communities in Washington State, but that spread to the Iroquois of New York State and spread throughout the country. My own people, the Lumbee, routed the KKK [Ku Klux Klan] when they tried to come in there and burn a cross in the 1950s. And so you had this surge of, ‘We’re just not going to take this kind of racism and discrimination anymore.’ And so that begins to mount the relocation effort in which the federal government had tried to forcibly get many Native peoples to leave the reservation to go into urban areas, sort of the last systematic federal policy. That led to a major pan-Indian movement -- not unlike the boarding school period from earlier generations -- and so that also galvanized Indigenous peoples. And then comes the War on Poverty and the Office of Economic Opportunity and various federal programs that provide its funding to tribal leaders who began to take advantage of various media opportunities and various media venues in the urban areas. And so it was a combination of things, the environmental movement, the Black Power movement, the birth of the American Indian movement, the Alcatraz takeover in 1969.

So it was really a beautiful and powerful and completely unheard of confluence of events that just sort of coalesced and all of that, out of all that ferment, I think it convinced tribal politicians, tribal community activists, ‘We have the power to do more for ourselves if we’ll just do it.’ And so some tribal communities began to do that and many of them began to turn their attention to either their constitutions or to a desire to try and create or recreate traditional governing systems or to do something about their general council or whatever system they had, but it was this confluence of events that I think really encouraged tribes that, ‘Yes, you have the authority’, and then when Congress passes the Indian Self-Determination Act, when Richard Nixon issues his Indian policy statement, they then had federal support and federal recognition for these Indigenous self-determination efforts. And so all of that I think convinced tribes, ‘We need to take charge of our own governing systems and we need to do that by really closely examining what kind of governing systems we have in place. And we need to begin to fine tune it or throw it out and start over or do whatever we need to make it, to get it to match what our community’s needs are right now, rather than what they were looking like 40 or 50 years ago.’”

Ian Record:

“You talked about a lot of this movement kind of taking hold, I guess the realization setting in in the ‘50s, the movement really taking hold in the ‘60s and then crystallizing in the ‘70s with the Self-Determination Act. And you mentioned Richard Nixon’s statement and other events, but this movement is not slowing down, is it? It’s really gaining momentum, not slowing in momentum. Can you talk about, I guess, in broad terms how tribes are remaking their governing systems and reclaiming their governing systems and not only their systems, but maybe specific governing tools to better reflect their cultures, to better advance their priorities and essentially regain ownership in the decision making seat in their own communities.”

David Wilkins:

“Well with the Indian Self-Determination Act of 1975, that was the first major law. And so in addition to that, a couple years later you have several Supreme Court decisions come down the pipe, decisions like Santa Clara Pueblo vs. Martinez, which recognize that tribes have the right to decide who their citizens are and there were other decisions as well. Those were of course counterbalanced by negative decisions like, cases like Oliphant vs. Suquamish, whose tribe learned they no longer had criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians, which historically, we did in fact exercise, despite what the Chief Justice said at the time. But you really had this development taking place that really sort of started with Nixon and then it began to build through Congress with the Trail of Broken Treaties and some of the activism that took place. It sort of culminates with the ‘75 Indian Self-Determination Act and then some later Supreme Court decisions.

And so that combination of things takes place and then comes Ronald Reagan of course. Reagan comes in slashing everybody’s budget, but particularly the budget of vulnerable groups like tribal nations, and out of that, someone in Nixon’s camp encourages tribes, ‘You should look to gaming as an opportunity to do some kind of economic development.’ So the Seminole started a little bingo parlor and all of a sudden it explodes and other tribes say, ‘Hey, if they can do it, we can do that.’ And so the California tribes start theirs. They’re challenged of course by the State of California, it goes to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court tells tribes in the state, ‘If you allow it, the tribes can do it.’ And so before you know it, tribes across the country are establishing casinos, which begin to bring in a steady stream of revenue, which we hadn’t seen the likes of ever really, dating back to the fur trade probably or the buffalo period.

And so that money and that stream of fairly secure income because Indian casinos continue to do very well compared to other casino operations, that has given a number of tribes a measure of economic flexibility. So they’ve been able to use that money to begin to rebuild their infrastructure, they’ve been able to use it to engage in language immersion programs and do all sorts of things culturally and with educations and with Head Starts and with all sorts of programs. It’s also taking us down a road, since we’ve never been on it before, we don’t know where that’s taking us. And so it’s also unleashed a backlash of course from envious state governors and envious state lawmakers and envious federal lawmakers who look to tribes now and their successful casino operations to bail them out of their economic problems. And so it’s created this backlash, and you’re always going to have legislators like the late Slade Gorton, who’s no longer in the Senate who was known as an Indian fighter and challenged any exercise of tribal sovereignty among the states in Washington or anywhere in the country. And so we’re going to have this constant sort of battle.

But the constitutional reform efforts that are taking place, I think, are really taking place now largely because of these stream of events we talked about, but also because gaming has accorded certain tribes the financial flexibility to be able to sit back and take a moment and think and ponder and reflect and to really look more closely at what their reservation or trust land or ranch area looks like and to decide, ‘Is the system that we have in place the best one? Can we do better? Do we need to look at revising or remaking or engaging in a revolution to come up with a newer or different system of government that might be more reflective of the way we historically governed ourselves or should we continue down the path of devising constitutions that begin to mimic more the state or the federal system?’ which has certain advantages and perks as well. And so I think tribes are having opportunities now to do things that they didn’t have before because of the economic flexibility that gaming and some other revenue streams has provided them.”

Ian Record:

“Part of your research focus in terms of contemporary tribal governance has examined the trends in terms of constitutional reform and how tribes are reclaiming their systems of governance, redesigning them to meet contemporary challenges while at the same time reflecting more appropriately their cultures and their identities and their core values and so on. Could you share maybe what you view as kind of the most bright lights out there from your experience, some of the tribes that are -- in your opinion -- are really seizing the day when it comes to regaining their governing systems, reclaiming those systems to better suit their own needs?”

David Wilkins:

“Well, that’s an area that I’m just now, I’ve collected with the help of a friend who’s a computer whiz, we’ve created a database of tribal constitutions and right now we’ve got about 318 and I’ve read a lot of these, but I haven’t begun yet to really closely examine what is happening on the ground right now with regards to specific tribes and their own constitutional efforts. I can only speak about my own tribe, the Lumbee. We’re not fully federally recognized, although in the process of pursuing that. We devised a constitution in the mid-1990s that was very contentious because there was another segment of the tribe that had been in power that had started during the War on Poverty and OEO [Office of Economic Opportunity] period and sort of thought of itself as the tribal government. And yet when the tribal community decided they wanted to create an actual constitution and began that very complex process, which took a number of years, that group ultimately was sort of squeezed out and it’s caused a bit of tension and yet the constitutional government is in place now and it seems to be working fairly well. Other tribes, a former student of mine, Deron Marquez, was the chairman of his small California rancheria, San Manuel Band of Serrano Indians. They don’t have a constitution. They have a simple plan of action that’s been in place for some time. They operate under a general council model because they’re such a small community, but they happen to have one of the most successful casino and gaming operations in California. And they’ve been able to parlay those revenues and they’ve become partners and now they are co-owners of a four-star hotel in Washington, D.C. with a couple of other tribes. They own a water bottling plant and they’ve diversified their economy tremendously, but the casino dollars were the basis of that. And so I’m looking forward to doing more in terms of the constitutional, contemporary constitutions to see what tribes are doing what, but I just haven’t got into that fully just yet.”

Ian Record:

“So Dave, let’s dive into a little bit more detail on two acts of legislation, federal acts of legislation that you’ve already touched upon, and the first is the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 and the second is the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975. Could you delve into what impact those two acts of legislation had in terms of transforming the environment within which Native nations exercise sovereignty?”

David Wilkins:

“OEO was a major law. The Area Redevelopment Act was the first law in 1961. I don’t know a whole lot about that, but it was sort of an early forerunner to the OEO, but OEO is credited by most tribal people with being the first major piece of legislation that created an Indian desk in that particular office because there was clear, there was all sorts of empirical evidence that Indian Country was in the doldrums and had been for multiple generations from an economic development perspective. And so the federal government in creating the OEO staffed that, put an Indian desk there and other programs that were started, the Comprehensive Employment Training Act, CETA was an act that I got my first job in when I was still in college in 1973. But OEO and the legal services was another dimension of that. In fact, Peterson Zah was a recipient of that and he was able to take some of that money, get himself to law school, and use that to create the first legal services corporation on the Navajo Reservation that has done wonderful work and still is doing wonderful work.

And so it created a cadre of Native leaders who were able to gain particular jobs and get education, whether in law school or graduate school and they became the ones who went back to the reservation and either assumed political leadership positions or became the grant writers for their nations. And it was that grant-writing process that created a whole new generation, what Sam Deloria once called the 'managerial class of Indian elites,' who helped to sort of begin not to completely severe, but to begin to cut the umbilical cord between tribes and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. And that in itself was a major deal, because as long as tribes were absolutely beholden to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Indian Affairs was in complete charge and had been for the previous century and a half.

But when the OEO and the other War on Poverty programs became available to tribes as granting agents, they began to receive money that didn’t have to go through the BIA, it went directly to them as sponsoring agencies and they were able to then use some of that money to do certain things. There was still all sorts of things attached to that and they still had to follow federal rules and regulations and it created additional problems because tribes under their treaty obligations were getting money as sovereign nations but in under the War on Poverty programs and Great Society programs, they were getting them as simply poverty-stricken groups. And so there were far more strings attached to what they could do with that money. But even within that constrained framework, tribes were able to do things and had a measure of flexibility that they hadn’t had for a very, very long time. And the Indian Self-Determination Act of 1975 really kicked that up a notch higher, and now tribes were able to contract directly and began to take over control of programs and to administer programs, still again attached to federal rules and regulations and stipulations and so on, but still they were gaining and additional measure of self-administration, if not complete self-determination because they’re still, the money is still coming from the federal government, but they now had a bit more flexibility in what they could do with the money and they could contract and still maintain their trust relationship to the federal government.

And then comes 1991, you have Self-Determination, which sort of morphs into the Indian Self-Governance Project and this was an initiative that was actually started by tribal leaders themselves. They took the idea to people in Washington, D.C. So Indians are the ones that got the Indian Self Governance process underway and they brought it to the attention of the people in Washington and said, ‘There are too many strings attached, too many, there are too many, we don’t have enough freedom and enough flexibility to do what we really want with either the OEO remnants or the Indian Self-Determination Act. We want to be self-governing, in which we just get a block of money directly from the federal government and then we just do what we want with that.’ And so you had a number of tribes, I’m not sure how many tribes. I know initially there were like 20 some odd tribes that were part of the original pool of self-governing tribes. I think their numbers now are up into the 40s, maybe even more now. And so you’ve got self-determined tribes, now you’ve got a body of self-governing tribes, and we’re still sort of in that sort of mode right now.

But then of course, once the gaming phenomenon just erupted, now you’ve got the casino tribes and they’re sort of a whole other thing, a whole other level. And yet because, if tribes were going to engage in class C gaming, which is the most lucrative, they are required under the federal law to negotiate a compact with the state and the Supreme Court, unfortunately, has interpreted that to mean that the state essentially has a veto power over tribal decisions. So even when tribes had the, what they think is their largest amount of leeway, federal lawmakers still find ways to give either themselves or to delegate to states a power that essentially amounts to a veto power. And so even there there are constraints. And yet you’re right, as you were saying a moment ago, tribes are having opportunities now to do things that a generation and certainly two or three ago weren’t even on the horizon.”

Ian Record:

“I had a colleague once describe the Indian Self-Determination Act of 1975 in this way, that ‘the federal government cracked the door on the ability of tribes to take over meaningful authority over their own affairs, and that some, not all, but some tribes drove a Mac Truck right through that door, that they kicked the door in essentially.' What do you think has been the difference between those tribes that have really been able to take full advantage of the new environment that...that act and its predecessors created and what has on the flip side held some other tribes back?”

David Wilkins:

“That’s a good question. And even with the Self-Determination Act, even with Self-Governance, I wouldn’t buy that analogy. I wish it were true. I think the door has been cracked and some tribes have widened it a bit and the self-governance tribes have widened it a bit further and casino tribes, the ones that are really doing well, have widened it a bit further, but there are still profound constraints on tribal economic and political and legal and cultural decision-making authorities that states don’t have to worry about, that individual citizens don’t have to worry about, but that we still do because of concepts like the doctrine of plenary power, the Doctrine of Discovery and various other legal ways in which the Supreme Court and the Congress and increasingly states are in positions in which they have the authority and have the power to restrict us, you see. And so while I think it would be nice to try and argue that we have essentially free reign, we don’t and haven’t had that since the John Marshall era in the 1820s, since Johnson v. McIntosh in 1823, where the Supreme Court said we don’t own our own land and the discoverer gained the superior title to that. That doctrine still governs. So Native peoples on reservation land -- even if it’s land that they’ve never left -- still don’t have a superior title to their own territory. And so, I want to see the glass as half full too, rather than being half empty, but as someone who studied federal politics and federal law and policy, I’m well aware of how quickly and how emphatically federal lawmakers can come in and can absolutely lock us down and we have no recourse because we’re still denied full admittance into the international community despite the draft declaration and despite the permanent forum and despite other things. And so we have more freedom today than we’ve enjoyed for a very long time, but we need to be realistic and realize that we still don’t have as much freedom as I think we are treaty and trust base entitled to. And so that’s the reality of that I think we have to be aware of, always cognizant of.”

Ian Record:

“So David, I wanted to finish up with a quote, and this is by a rather well-known Onondaga leader named Oren Lyons, whom you know, and he said once that ‘The best defense of sovereignty is to exercise it effectively.’ I was wondering if you could respond to that and how you see that from your perspective.”

David Wilkins:

“Absolutely. Vine [Deloria] was always saying just that in his many writings about tribal sovereignty, encouraging tribes all along -- dating back to Custer Died for Your Sins and even when he was executive director of NCAI [National Congress of American Indians] -- to quit talking and to get out there and start acting, to start exercising, to start wielding the residual, inherent sovereign powers that you still have. He said, ‘They’re all there and if you don’t wield them, if you don’t use them, in their dormant state they atrophy.’ And when something atrophies in this society, it eventually becomes brittle and it breaks away or someone from the outside swoops in and just takes it away because they say, ‘You’re not exercising it, you’re going to lose it.’ And it’s the old water law doctrine, ‘Either you use it or you lose it.’ And I think that’s what Vine and certainly what Oren Lyons is referencing there. And that’s where I think tribes today are really doing some wonderful things. I think sometimes they go a bit overboard in fact with engaging in certain activities and basing it on the doctrine of sovereignty.

So for example, I’ve been researching the disenrollment issue and the banishments that have really been increasing dramatically in the last dozen or so years, and I hear a number of tribal officials saying that they’re exercising their sovereignty when they act to kick out bona fide members, bona fide citizens of their nations. And they say, that’s not an act of sovereignty, that’s an act of desperation, I think, because historically we found ways as tribal nations through our various adjudicative ways and our various judicial ways to, if there was a conflict, we found ways to restore balance, to restore harmony, to bring people together to negotiate, to arbitrate, to solve the difference. You just didn’t willy-nilly tell someone, ‘You’re no longer one of us,’ because you’re related to those people. If we view tribal nations as extended families, as extended kinship networks, there’s no way that I would kick you out if you’re my brother, if you’re my relative. You don’t cut off your arm. And we were talking earlier today during our meeting about this concept of membership versus citizenship and as I’ve been doing my research on disenrollment and banishment I looked up those two words. And if you look at the etymology of the word membership, it dates back, its earliest meaning means an organ of the body and I think that’s the meaning that John Collier had in mind when he first coined the phrase tribal membership. He saw tribes as one living body of humanity in which all the people were related. That’s how Cohen understood us and that’s how historically we understood ourselves. And so if that’s the case, then that entire body is a sovereign body. And so you don’t act in a way to willy-nilly and arbitrarily cast off a portion of that body, because that’s who you are. And so I’m concerned when I see that kind of thing happening.

And yet as often as that’s happening, many other positive developments are also happening in which tribes are engaging in exercising sovereignty like the United Treaty that was negotiated just two summers ago up in Washington State between various Native nations and the United States and some Canadian First Nations, some Maori and some New Zealand, I mean some Australian Aborigines. And so that’s an act of sovereignty that Vine also encouraged our peoples to do a long time ago to engage in diplomacy amongst ourselves. We’re denied that under federal law currently, but there’s nothing under federal law or our treaties that say we can’t negotiate with one another. And so this is an example of tribes in a positive way exercising their sovereignty to engage in diplomatic relations with other Native powers. And so when I see something like that happen, I smile and so that replaces my frown from disenrollment to a smile with engaging in diplomacy.”

Ian Record:

“You mentioned the positive ways that -- and the strategically beneficial ways -- that tribes are exercising their sovereignty and the ways that those exercises in fact help tribes, empower tribes to defend that sovereignty. And then you also talked about ways that they’re perhaps not exercising it beneficially in terms of advancing their long-term interests. It may make sense now, but in the long run it’s going to be to their detriment. We also see some tribes exercising their sovereignty in ways that are going to invite responses from other entities, other governments, particularly the federal government, state governments, that are going to put them in the legal arena and as someone who’s a student of the U.S. Supreme Court and how it treats tribes in this day and age, that may not be the best place for tribes to try to have their rights recognized, is it?”

David Wilkins:

“Right. Exactly. Exactly. Yeah, my dissertation was on the Supreme Court and most of my first publications addressed how the Supreme Court engaged in and arrived at various opinions that have had a devastating status over tribal sovereignty. And increasingly, as the Supreme, once Ronald Reagan became president, through his two terms, he was able to really stack the federal courts with a number of conservative ideologues. Clinton came in and he obviously wasn’t as conservative as Reagan and yet, his appointees were larger fairly moderate as well. George Bush with his most two recent appointments of Alito and John Roberts, as soon as I heard about those appointments, I knew that we were going to be in for a much longer stretch of rulings that were going to really have negative repercussions.

A graduate student and I wrote a paper in which we examined the Supreme Court decisions from 1996 to about, 1995 to 2003 and we looked at all the major decisions. While there were a couple of decent rulings during that period, for the most part, most of the opinions, over 80 percent of them were negative. And even David Souter, who voted most often in favor of tribes, only supported tribes about 23 percent of the time. Clarence Thomas, of course, is the most radically anti-Indian Supreme Court justice, followed closely by Scalia and now Roberts and Alito and Kennedy and it goes on down the list. And so historically, at least until the 1970s, tribes could turn to that august body of nine individuals to sometimes get a fair shake, but that’s simply not the case now. And so you have a situation where when tribes have a conflict, say a state is attempting to extend their jurisdictional authority over an area that has historically been run and governed by tribes, if they turn to Congress, they’re going to find not a positive ally, if they turn to the president, they’re not going to find a positive ally and now they turn to the Supreme Court, which had historically been their one occasional ally, that’s certainly, that door has largely been closed to them.

And what bothered me most recently, the latest Supreme Court decision, the Plains Commerce decision, which was just handed down a month ago or two months ago, I had read the oral transcripts. And someone had notified me about those and I was able to track them down on the internet and Justices Scalia and Roberts raised questions of the Indians’ attorney in which they essentially were mocking the tribal corporation. And I knew based just on that language and the laughter that ensued, I said, ‘We’re going to lose this case.’ I read some other opinions by other people, other Indian legal scholars who felt that we were going to, that Natives were going to win the case, but I could tell by the tone and by the mocking derision that was exhibited by Roberts and Scalia, I said, ‘There’s no way.’ And sure enough, we wound up losing that in a quite powerful and very harsh decision just two months ago, and so that was a further blow to tribal court authority.

And so until tribal courts are going to be granted the comity, the respect that state courts take for granted and that certainly federal courts take for granted, it’s going to be difficult. So I wonder sometimes when I hear people say the tribes need to develop courts, well, to what end? If they’re not, if their verdicts aren’t going to be accorded any respect, if they’re not going to be granted the kind of recognition that state decisions and federal decisions are, then what is the point of having that? And I say it on my darker days, and I still want many tribes to have some kind of adjudicatory body, it may not necessarily have to be a court system, but we need something in place so that we can provide some balance to the executive power and the legislative power, but if we’re going to have a court system, we need to find some way to convince our neighboring polities, the states and the federal government that they need to show our judges and justices respect just like our justices show them respect.”

Ian Record:

“Well, we’d like to thank Professor Wilkins for being with us today on this edition of Leading Native Nations, a program of the Native Nations Institute. To learn more about Leading Native Nations, please visit the Native Nations Institute’s website at Thank you for joining us.”

Honoring Nations: Oren Lyons: Governing Our Way to a Brighter Future

Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development

Onondaga Chief and Faithkeeper Oren Lyons shares his perspective on why governance matters to the sovereignty and long-term prosperity of Indigenous peoples, and stresses the importance of adhering to the long-taught instructions that have ensured the survival of those peoples to this day.

Resource Type

Lyons, Oren. "Governing Our Way to A Brighter Future." Honoring Nations symposium. Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Sante Fe, New Mexico. February 7, 2002. Presentation.

Oren Lyons:

"[Iroquois language]. That's our greeting for, general greeting across Six Nations country and the Haudenosaunee, people call us Iroquois. It means ‘thank you for being well' and it's important. '[Iroquois language]' means 'peace' and it's the same word for health. [Iroquois language]. ‘Health and peace,' that's our greeting. Thank you for being healthy. Thank you for the peace. We'll come back to that because that's instructive. Time is relentless and so is Andrew Lee. He put together a program, you know, when you look at it and say, ‘Well, how are we going to get through all this?' But here we are. It's Saturday afternoon and we have gone through all of the points that were put out in the program and very well as a matter of fact. It's been very enlightening and I really enjoyed these sessions because I learned so much, there's just so much that I guess we all had the same feeling. 'Boy, I wish everybody was here from my nation so they could have heard this.' So what that means is that somehow we have to transfer this information that we have back to our peoples, back to our nations, and to give them some hope and direction because we are in perilous times, there is no doubt.

Now I thought that we should begin and I should take the time and I will take the time to go through our greeting, our [Iroquois language] we say, the opening or the words before all words. Before we open any session in any meeting, big or small, we start with these words and so I thought you should hear them because as my grandmother said last night as she was talking, my aunt, and she said, ‘There are words, there are directions,' that she doesn't hear much anymore, but they are there and I know all our nations have them and when Regis [Pecos] was talking and he was speaking, when Peterson Zah was speaking his language, he was saying these very words and even though we didn't understand the language, we understood that these were the words and they are the same. They're the same for all our peoples and we're so fortunate that any of our elders can stand and speak for all of us. That's how common we are. Language of course is the soul of a nation and that's what's been put forward. And if you don't have a use for a language you lose it or if somebody transfers your uses to another language then that's what you use. Indian nations -- we didn't lose our language, it was taken from us, it was beaten from us, it was forced from us. We didn't lose it. So we have to fight back for it. We need it. There's a lot of information and instruction in our languages. When we lose these languages, all that instruction is gone. Ceremonies that we run will be gone. So we have to fight for it. Each generation has to pick up that fight and that's where we're at right now.

It's interesting to me, one more statement on the language, is that we're getting a lot of political play these days for the code talkers. Here in Washington people are talking about the code talkers, but the irony I think is missed by most people but probably not by our people. You know, those code talkers -- and there were many -- there were...I know there were the Ojibwes, I know that there were many other languages used but those languages, those Navajo languages that was used this war, the second World War saved thousands and thousands of American lives, thousands, and these were the very languages that they were beating out of us. And what if they were successful? How many lives would America have lost? Isn't that ironic that the very thing that they were taking from us saved...maybe saved the war. Who knows? It was mentioned here that we should forgive and we have and it's amazing but we don't forget. As you know, Indians never forget anything...ever! But we have forgiven and there's an amazing amount of good will in Indian Country to our brothers. We espouse common cause very easily. It's amazing, but I think that's a reflection of our nations, of our cultures cause that's just the way we are.

And anyway, we always start these meetings with the thanksgiving acknowledge we call it. We say first...our first acknowledgement is to the people. So all of the people who are here, all of the people who are not here, those who are sick, those who could not make it, we acknowledge all the people of the world, whoever they are, wherever they are, and we give a big thanksgiving.

And then we acknowledge the earth itself. [Iroquois language] we say, 'Our Mother.' We acknowledge the earth and all the life that she brings and all the generations of faces looking up from that earth...coming...coming...coming. We acknowledge the earth and we give a big thanksgiving for the earth, Our Mother.

And then we acknowledge all the grass and all the bushes and all the medicine that grow on this earth and we think about that. We're grateful and we're thankful and we put our minds together as one and we give a big thanksgiving for all of the grasses and medicines and bushes on the earth.

And then we move to the trees and we think of the leader of the trees, the maple. And we think of all the trees in the world and their duties and we give a thanksgiving, because they continue their duties and it supports us and we're grateful. So we put our minds together as one and give a big thanksgiving for all the trees of the world.

And then we move to all the animals that run in the woods and run in the fields and that live in the rocks and we think about them and we give a thanksgiving for all of these animals for they carry out their duties and their duties provide for us, support us. We think about them and we give a thanksgiving for all the animals of the world, big and small.

And then we move to the waters and we think about the waters, all these waters, the springs, the streams, the rivers, the lakes, the oceans, our life and what it does for us. The water that we cook our foods, we wash ourselves, we cook our medicines; without the water there would be no life. And so we put our minds together and we give a big thanksgiving for all the waters of the earth.

And then we think about all the fishes and the life that's in the waters and how great they are and how they sustain us. And we think about that and we think about the leader, the trout, and we say, ‘The river runs through his mouth' and we say, ‘This is wonderful.' We give a big thanksgiving for all the fishes of the sea and all the life within it. So we put our minds together as one and we give a big thanksgiving. So be it, our way.

And then we move to the birds, those that fly. These are very special. These birds do many, many, many duties. And the chief, the leader, the eagle is the one that looks out for all. And we think of even the smallest, the tiniest, the hummingbird and the songs that they give us that can raise our spirits when we don't feel good. They wake us in the morning, they remind us every day this is another day. They are messengers and we give thanks for all the birds of the world.

And then we move to our grandfathers, the four winds, the ones that bring the seasons. And we think about them, these powerful forces so great in strength that we do not want to see their ultimate strength but we may as we were warned. But still, we love these grandfathers, these winds of the four directions that plant the life on this earth and bring the seasons. And we put our minds together as one and we give a big thanksgiving to the great winds from the four directions of the earth.

And then we think of our grandfathers with thundering voices that bring the rain and when we hear them in the spring we're grateful and we run and we give thanks, special thanks because it means we are going to have rain for another season when they speak, these grandfathers with thundering voices. And we give thanks for them because they water our people, they water the trees, they water the earth and they replenish all the fresh water. So we put them in our minds and we give a thanksgiving.

And then we move to our grandmother the moon and she looks after the female, she works with the female. She sets the duties for the seasons. She raises and lowers the great seas of the earth, very powerful. We call her the night sun. She shows our way at night. And we put our minds together and we give a big thanksgiving for our grandmother the moon.

And then we think of our eldest brother the sun, without whom we wouldn't have light today as we can look outside and we can see he is doing his duty and we are served by that and we are fortunate. He works with the earth to bring life, together they produce life, this eldest brother, a mighty thanksgiving. Each day we are fortunate. Someone once said here, ‘Tomorrow never comes' and that may well be. So today is here. So we put our minds together and we give a big thanksgiving for our eldest brother the sun.

And then we move to the stars, those beautiful stars. They hold a great deal of knowledge and our people used to know the knowledge. But we now say we don't know much anymore. But yet they still guide us at night, yet they still lead us and they lift our hearts with their beauty and they bring the dew in the morning and work with water. And so we put our minds together and we give a big thanksgiving to the stars in the heavens.

And then we move to the spiritual beings and these spiritual beings who look out for us every day, these spiritual beings whose duty it is to work with this earth and help us, support us. They're the ones that catch you just before you fall; they're with us all the time. And they're with us if you want to work with them and if you want to ask them, they're there, these spiritual beings, and we don't know who they are and they work in many ways. And so we put our minds together in a big thanksgiving for these spiritual beings that work for the Creator.

And in our lands we give thanks for [Iroquois language], this man who was given a message to us 200 years ago that helped our nation survive, that gave us the directions that we needed, spiritual message. And so we put our minds together and we give a thanksgiving for [Iroquois language].

And then we come to the Creator, [Iroquois language], giver of all life; this might force who sustains us, looks after us, provides for us. Finally, with all our minds and thinking of all the things that we can think of that he has given us. We put our minds together in a mighty, mighty thanksgiving and we give a thanksgiving for [Iroquois language], the Creator.

So then we say we have now finished our first [Iroquois language], which is the words before all words and now we have provided a context as to who we are and what our duties are and we go about our business. And so with that I thought I could share that with that with you. [Iroquois language] So now we'll begin the business.

They told us, make your prayers, get up and make your prayers and then go to work, 'cause nothing happens without work. So the context then, who are we? In this great earth that we heard about, where is the human being and what is our responsibility because we have intellect, because we have hands, because we can build things and especially because we have the foreknowledge of death? We know that we are going on. Animals know when they are going, they prepare. If you watch your dog, in the morning when he goes out and he's making a bed and he disappears for a day and then two days then three days and five days and he doesn't come back because he knows it's his time. We used to know that too. We've lost a lot of things. Animals know, but they don't know beforehand. We know beforehand, so that's our responsibility. That means we have to look up for life and that's our responsibility and that's where leadership comes, that's where governance comes and that's where the relevance of our peoples today in today's context is very important because of these great knowledges that our nations have. We don't want to lose them. Everybody will suffer by that loss.

So now we want to talk about identity. You heard about it. What is our identity? Our identity is our land. That's our identity, it's our land, it's our water, it's where we live, it's where we've lived for thousands of years and who knows how long. I get such a big kick out of anthropologists and archaeologists and historians who say, ‘Well, you Indians have only been here 10,000 years yourself,' immigrants talking to us. We've been here a lot longer than 10,000 years and we know that. And I told them that. I said, ‘I'll just simply wait because eventually your science will turn it up.' They get very angry. But identity, yes, that's us, that's our land.

My uncle took the time when I was just graduated from college, took the time, realizing that I was head strong, kind of full of myself and feeling pretty hot...pretty hot stuff here. He said, ‘Hey, let's go fishing.' I said, ‘Good idea,' because I knew he knew where the fish were. We went in a boat, we got out in a boat and we were over by where the bass were and sitting there quietly, got our lines in and he said, ‘Well, I see you're just graduated from the university.' And I knew right then I was in trouble. I was in a boat, I couldn't go anywhere and he was the one that had the motor on the other hand. But it was interesting because he said, ‘Well, you must know who you are then. You know a lot of things.' ‘Yeah, I learned a lot of things.' ‘Well, you must know who you are.' ‘Yeah, I know who I am.' So I gave him my Indian name, I gave him my clan, gave him the nation and every time I would add something then he'd say, ‘And that's it, huh?' After a long struggle I finally had to be quiet for awhile and then he says, ‘You need some help?' I said, ‘Yeah.' ‘Good,' he says, ‘good.' He said, ‘Look at that tree up here,' and he pointed to a cliff and there was a beautiful tree not very old, a spruce it looked like, beautiful. He said, ‘You're the same as that tree.' He says, ‘Your roots are in the earth, that's your Mother.' He says, ‘You're the same as that tree.' He says, ‘You're one in the same, you're a little ant, your mother's the earth.' He said, ‘That's who you are.' That was the biggest lesson. I never forgot it and that's what we have to remember.

So identity, the land, that's what I mean, you're part of the earth. It's us and it's our responsibility. So how do you maintain this responsibility? Well, we were instructed to one, give thanks, which we did and two to enjoy life. We're instructed to're supposed to enjoy life. You're not supposed to be walking around like them pilgrims we saw come over, they were so grim. They only wore black clothes and worked seven, no six days. They worked six days. Our people thought they were kind of crazy. They took their little children in the middle of the winter and they put them in the water and they were just born and some of them died. And our people said, ‘What are you doing?' And they said, ‘We're saving them.' We never really figured that out yet. ‘We're saving them.' But anyway, they were pretty grim, but our people are not. They like bright clothes. Look at my shirt, nice. One time when we were talking with these...white, they're my brothers, they're Dutch...we were making an agreement, a treaty called the Two Row. After all was said and done, they said, ‘Well, how will we know one another?' And we said, ‘You will know us by the way we dress.' Now, think about that. If you have a hard time, they'll see a lot of us these days, won't they, by the way we dress. What does it mean ‘by the way we dress?' That means your culture, that means who you are. So wear something, carry something, show who you are.

Now, my clan is the wolf and we had a lot of discussion here about the wolf and I'm glad my young nephew Aaron brought that up. He talked about the wolf. A good question, ‘Who is the wolf?' Well, the clan, that's me, I'm the wolf. I'm proud of it. And people ask me, they say, ‘Well, what's your sign?' I say, ‘The wolf.' And they get confused, but the signs that they talk about come from another land and another idea and another way. We have our identities, we know who we are, and I'm so glad you spoke about your clans, who you are because that is really important, that's our identity. And who is the wolf then, who is the wolf? Really, even among our people, an enigma. We know powerful, we know spiritual, and we know our white brother looks at the wolf the same way he looks at us. He likes us because we're proud, he likes us because we're fierce, he likes because we fight hard. So he takes his picture and puts it on his uniform and says he is a warrior or he is an Indian because we're fierce and we fight, but that's not who we are and that's not who the wolf is. Anyone will fight when you're coming in your front door. The mouse will fight you if you corner them. You know you've got to be careful, he'll bite you. You have to respect. And so who is the wolf, then?

We were having a ceremony in the longhouse and it was a great feather dance, the Creator's dance, and we had a singer coming from [Iroquois language], Mohawk, and he was singing and I was listening. I couldn't understand exactly I went to my grandmother and I said, ‘He's talking about? The wolf?' She said, ‘Yes.' She said, ‘That's an old song. I haven't heard that in a long time'. And I said, ‘What is he saying?' And she said, ‘In this road to the path to the Creator, this beautiful path that we all go on and we're walking,' she says, ‘we're walking and on the sides of the road are the strawberries, the leader of the fruit, strawberries all the way out.' 'And we're walking,' that's what he saying in his song, his preamble before we begin the dance. And then he said, 'To my side my grandfather the wolf, on his own path, side by side we're walking, we're walking through the Creator's land.' And that gave us some indication of who our brother the wolf is because I think, yes, I think he represents the natural world and I think how it goes with the wolf goes with us. We're the same and we're also the same with all our brothers. And so how it goes with us will go with them, although they don't know yet, don't understand yet. So somehow we have to educate and explain to them that we need all of us to survive, we can't lose one. We can't lose great leaders like the wolf or the bear; again, spiritual, again, powerful medicine, we know that.

We say in Onondaga, Haudenosaunee, that the leader of all the animals is the deer. Now with the deer with his horns we come around and in between these horns like radar and he can see far beyond his eyes here. He's all over the world, as the wolf is all over the world, as the eagle is all over the world the leader, they're all over. That's how you can tell they're leaders, they're everywhere. Not all animals are everywhere, but these are leaders. And so, yes, who is the wolf? I think the wolf represents humanity, life as we know it. We lose that, we lose everything, us included, and it will be miserable and slow. You're not just going to fold over and die, you're just going to die slowly, one generation after the other. It's going to take generations suffering. We don't want that. So how do we stop that? By keeping our ceremonies, by keeping our dances, by giving our thanksgivings. That's what he said. ‘As long as you give thanks, life will go on.' Simple instruction. Are we too busy, are we too busy to take the time to give thanks? So those are questions that we have to answer ourselves in today's time when time is relentless. It is relentless because we've entered into the same time frame as the rest of the world so we feel the same thing. There are some people who still operate on the time of the earth and they're quite happy, they're quite content. They just go along with the day. Kind of a nice way to live, but it's not the way things are today.

And so the identity: land. Then with the land is the jurisdiction. And jurisdiction is the ultimate authority over that land and if you don't have jurisdiction on your land, then you don't have the land. You're just there until somebody wants to move you and they will. Our people have a great history of being moved. You know about it. We know where we live, we know where we come from and still remember. We had great leaders who gave their lives for our people, great leaders who would look at us today and wonder, wonder about us. Do we have the strength? Do we have the conviction? Do we have the will to survive as our peoples, as who we are? We've talked about political will. Well, that's the bottom line, political will. If you don't have the political will to survive, you won't. You have to fight and you have to fight on all levels and yet in all of this is a common cause and the common cause is survival. There was an old Indian leader who came from the west, I don't know what exactly his name was but he said, ‘There is going to come a time when people will cease to live and begin to survive.' What did he mean by that? He's talking about quality of life and that's the values we talk about. What is the quality of life? Is the quality of life a BMW? Is that your quality of life? Or is it your grandchildren singing Indian songs? Is that a quality of life? It's up to us to choose that. Every generation has to look out for itself. You can't live your children's lives. You have to give them enough instruction to survive. That's our responsibility, instruction. Each generation will have its leaders, each generation will have its heroes and each generation will have those people whom nations will despise. All of us are spiritual beings and every day when we get up we try to keep the spiritual center and be a good person. We don't want to be too good over here because then you just follow this way and of course you get too bad then you follow this way. So every day we have to make choices of who we're going to be today. And any one of us on any given day can be the worst enemy of our people ever...every day. These are decisions every day. So we need a lot of instruction. We need ways to keep in a good way. So we said with ceremonies. Now we'll move on. We'll move on.

In the borders of nations, you have three specific borders in the area of sovereignty. You have a geographic border. You can see a map and you can draw yourself a couple borders here. You have a political border. That border can look fuzzy. And then you have an economic border. Now you're really getting fuzzy. If you don't watch all three borders, you lose your sovereignty. Money, necessary, currency, around the world. At the U.N. [United Nations] or in Europe now we have the Euro. They now have a common currency. They've decided that they're going to work together and become like the United States. It seems to be working. Now we have to live every day in this society and societies, they're all different. But we have to keep our own identity and so think about that, every day think about your geographic border, think about your political border, and think about your economic border and try to keep them clear because the clearer you keep them, the stronger you are, the more sovereign. And you're at risk all the time.

So we heard about women. Somebody said women are important. Well, I guess so. When they talk about...I'm traveling around the world, which I do a lot and they're, ‘Oh, you're a chief'. ‘Well, yeah, one of the leaders'. The first question they ask, ‘Can a woman be a chief?' I said, ‘No'. I said, ‘No more than I could be a clan mother'. But the question comes from Western society. The question comes from what they call the battle of the sexes, the conflict that Western society has between men and women and the battle that women have gone through to even be recognized as equal and not quite yet. But we knew long ago, our people knew long ago that women were the center of our nation. We're partners. We've always been partners, full and equal, with duties of the woman and duties of the man. Not difficult. No one better than the other but working for the good of the family and working for the good of the nation. Not a problem, this idea of equality. It's old to our people, but our brothers in Western society is just beginning and having a hard time with it. So we should not be carried away by their discussion. We should retain and understand our own and we all remember and know that women are sacred. They carry life. We can't do it. And I think that's why the white man fears them. But I don't know.

Now, what is the danger that we face today? The dangers that we face today is this idea of government and governance, we were talking about it and I hear a lot about it. And people that have played sports, lacrosse or basketball or hockey, and these sports in particular, transition is a big factor. And if you can lay your attack on a transition, you catch your opposition in a vulnerable position and you can score. The transition game, it's getting to be a common talk. We knew about this transition game long ago. So changing, the nation is changing, you're in transition, you're in this contest and if you're not aware, you're vulnerable. So if you're changing from a traditional government to an elected government or have changed, you're still in transition. You're vulnerable because it's not your rules that you're playing by. Somebody else set these rules. So not only have you played a game, you've got to know the rules and know them good enough so you don't get caught in transition. And what are you transitioning to? From Indian to what? Envision and looking forward to who? But what I hear that gives me such great hope, strength, enthusiasm is every single one of the projects and schools people are talking about hanging onto the ways and borders. And that's where we're at.

The variety of realities that exist are the varieties of realities that are across this nation. There's a full spectrum. So we have to watch and as we move into the international field and we have people probably on their way back or assessing the last meeting at the U.N. in Switzerland and very important that Chief Justice [Robert] Yazzie was there and we had a discussion the other day. He was explaining what was going on in Geneva as they discussed your and my fate in an international forum. Were you there? Do you know about it? Eventually you'll hear about it. There's coalitions of states out there, Canada, United States, Australia, New Zealand, coalescing against Indigenous people. We had a statement here from the federal government said, ‘Self-determination is our good governance.' And yet our number one opponent at the U.N. is the United States against self-determination. Did you know that? You know how long we've been fighting them on that simple term? Well, it's not quite so simple, is it? Self-determination: the right to determine for yourself who you are. It carries great political impact and since 1994, when we put the draft declaration for the Rights of Indigenous people to the Human Rights Division in ECOSOC [U.N. Economic and Social Council] at the U.N., out of 45 articles they have only since 1994 agreed with two. Forty three of the articles of self-determination and human rights they have not agreed to. That's the kind of fight going on over there. The Haudenosaunee led that delegation to Geneva in 1977 and I was one of the leaders there and the people responsible. One hundred forty four people in that particular event, North, Central and South America. Indigenous peoples of the western hemisphere, we said, ‘That's who we are.' And the last meeting they had there was over 1,000-1,100 delegates, Indigenous people.

They moved to establish a permanent forum for Indigenous issues in ECOSOC. We are now developing the rules and regulations for governing that. That's going on and the ECOSOC will be in May at the U.N. in New York. It's going to reflect all the peoples of the world. But from the time that we stood outside the U.N. in 1973 petitioning to speak to them on behalf of the Lakota Nation, who was struggling at Wounded Knee, they wouldn't let us across the street. Phalanx is the police. We couldn't cross the street to the U.N. In 1992 I gave the first address to the United States body at the U.N. in their forum from their roster. And if you didn't' have the longevity of knowing the fight in between those years you would have said, ‘We haven't moved a step,' but obviously we have. So you have to have a perspective. You've got to know about these things. The same slam you're fighting at home, these fights are going on over there. You've got to support the people that are there. It's hard, it's expensive, it's really excruciatingly slow. We just last year, from the Clinton Administration, got an agreement that we were peoples, in brackets yet, but still. They didn't even agree to that before.

So I want to end this little discussion with some news from my country. Good news, I think. It makes me feel good. On the 14th of April we are going to raise the next Tadodaho, the next leader of the Haudenosaunee for the Six Nations, we're called the Iroquois. This title is 1,000 years old and although I feel apprehension for this man that's going to take this position because it's such a difficult position, yet, I have a lot of real hope. He's a good man. He was one of our very best lacrosse players. He was one of the very best defensemen we ever had. And now he's going to take this position. His name is Sid Hill. About 46, pretty young for the position but he is working hard and I think he's going to do it. So in the process and procedure of governance that we do and how we raise our leaders, we're going to raise this leader and there isn't going to be any Bureau of Indian Affairs there and there isn't going to be any Department of Interior and we're not asking anybody for anything. We are just doing what we should be doing, which is to raise our leaders in our way and the process is 1,000 years old. It's hard, it's tough to maintain that in these times but we have. And I never realized until I started traveling how important that was. And I don't think a lot of our people, our own people, realize how fortunate they are to still have chiefs because all of our nations know about chiefs. They revere these people, very selfless leaders. We still have them. And I've been on that council for a long time now, since 1967, and I can say one thing, that there is no budget for the chiefs. We don't get paid. I think that might be a good idea for governance. You will certainly change the people who want to be in charge. No, nobody wants to be the chief where I come from. It's too much work, it takes you away from the family and I heard it the other day, when you're working for the [Iroquois Language] you can even lose your family and it's happened, I've seen it. It's hard but it's important. It's what you call leadership in governance. What is the purpose of leadership, but to defend and promote the welfare of your nation and your people and to really be concerned for that seventh generation, the long vision?

So we have to raise our leaders and I thought Lance [Morgan] had a good idea. I said, ‘He's really put his finger on the problem that I see with elective systems which is that two- to four-year fight that goes on which can be really fierce in Indian Country, disruptive and no continuity.' And I thought his idea was a good idea. Maybe we should look at that because you want continuity. And it's nothing to it except to change it. You know you can do that if you just have the political will. That's all it takes. So having been taken far out and finding our way back, we have to take advantage of all of these things. And I tell you that I could take all the events...I can take it home to our people and say, ‘We can learn from every one of these projects. They're positive, they show spirit, they show the will of our people.' And I congratulate you. We've just got to keep it up and somehow we have to share and we have to be better coordinated to work with each other and support each other wherever we are. And so we have to give up some of our people we love to hate, long-time battles. We have to really set them aside now and work together and be more understanding and be more tolerant with the problems of all of our brothers wherever they are, the nations and their struggles.

They're asking...the world is asking for the wisdom of the elders of the traditional Indigenous people, all over the world. I know because they call me. And I'm just the runner. I'm just a runner. All I do is talk about what the nation knows and I'm careful about that. I'm learning all the time. I know who the leaders are and I know what it takes to be. So we have to support them. And in our own way being at this meeting we're all runners. We now have to go back and take the message home and share it and be concerned. It is the future. It is our people. And it's not only our people; it's the rest of life. I don't think that it's too late but we are, the human race, approaching a point of no return. We are approaching this point of no return. The ice is melting in the north as we speak. Global warming is here, we're in transition and the work that we're going to be doing today we are not going to be doing for ourselves, we are going to be doing for the next two or three generations. That's who's going to...who will gain by our work. Not us. We have to understand that we're going to have to take what's coming and not be weak and raise our leaders to meet these problems and they're going to be big. And if you think two towers going down in New York was a problem, wait. You're going to see some real problems coming. That's when we have to be strong and that's when we have to rely on the wisdom of our nations and remember them and hold them and keep the language. And with that I'm going to end my discussion. I'm going to, I think, urge you as we say [Iroquois language] -- try hard, do your best. [Iroquois language]"

Oren Lyons: Looking Toward the Seventh Generation

University of Arizona

Onondaga Chief and Faithkeeper Oren Lyons discusses the increasingly urgent issues of global warming and climate change and points to Indigenous peoples, their core values, and their reciprocal relationships to the natural world as sources of instruction for human beings to heed in order to combat those issues.

Resource Type

Lyons, Oren. "Looking Toward the Seventh Generation." American Indian Studies Program, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. April 17, 2008. Presentation.

“A lot of thank you’s today and I especially want to thank my elders here who gave a blessing and reminded me as well as everybody else that we are connected to the earth very closely and we should be thankful for everything that we do. And that was our instructions: give thanks, be grateful. I want to thank the American Studies in…Indian Studies in Arizona for bringing me here, and Moran for taking the time, and Carol for trucking me about, and to David for taking care of me. And everybody’s been so great to me so I really appreciate it here. Obviously going to have to come back and spend more time. Right now, I’m just on the move, but the reason why is important. It’s my mission to bring news to you, maybe not good news, but news that you should know about and things that are going on in the world.

I come from Onondaga, upstate New York. I come from the Six Nations. English call us 'Six Nations,' French call us 'Iroquois,' and we ourselves are the 'Haudenosaunee.' Six Nations: the Mohawks, the Oneidas, the Onondagas, the Cayugas, the Senecas and the Tuscarora. We’re an old alliance, we’re a confederation based on peace and we were gathered together some thousand years ago to cease fighting amongst ourselves and to become productive in creating and working with one another bringing peace. There was a spiritual being, messenger we called The Peacemaker. He has a name and the only time we ever use that name is when we raise leaders and we raise the [Native language], what you call 'chiefs,' then you’ll hear his name, but otherwise than that we call him The Peacemaker. And he came to five warring nations at that time and I won’t go through the epic story of his life and how he arrived at the Mohawks and how he went from one Nation to the other changing these fighting men to peace. So finally gathered on the shores of Onondaga Lake, where 50 men who formerly were enemies of one another and he laid down for us the whole constitution based on peace, the principle of peace and health, of equity, justice for the people and of unity, the power of the good minds and the power of the collective working together --one mind, one body, one heart, one spirit. And we’ve prospered under that instruction over these many years.

And today I represent in the council at Onondaga the Turtle Clan. I myself am a Wolf. I’ve been borrowed from the Wolfs to the Turtle -- temporarily, they said -- that was 41 years ago. You know how Indians are. So I’ve been there for a long time and the Onondaga Nation is the central fire of the Confederacy and we still maintain our structure of raising leaders and removing leaders. We’re probably the last of the traditional governments still in charge of land. And on our nation at Onondaga, we have no Bureau of Indian Affairs; we’re independent. I just traveled from Sweden to here. I traveled on a passport issued at Onondaga and we’ve been using that passport for now since 1977. It’s an instruction in maintaining your identity, who you are, the importance of being who you are and knowing who you are, instructing your children as to who you are. And most of that comes from songs like Mr. Lopez was singing -- that’s our instruction -- to the moon. We call that our grandmother. We have close relations with the earth. The earth’s our mother. You can’t get any closer than that. And from that point on, we’ve always been instructed by the Peacemaker on many things. When he gathered the people at Onondaga on the Onondaga Lake so many years ago and he instructed us how we would sit and what our clans would be and the authorities and the duties of the women and the men and the people and how this would continue and we’ve maintained that. Now in today’s times, we’re kind of alone in this traditional government, but traditions are everywhere. Every nation has kept their traditions, even though the BIA may be there and even though there may be government authorities, the traditions are still there, songs are still there, language is still there. And the information that’s in the language is what people are seeking today, some instruction.

And so I’ve been a runner for the Onondaga Nation and then the confederacy itself and at times for Indigenous people around the world. I was one of those people who were educated and they said, ‘Well, you can talk like they do. You get out there and you tell them.’ And so I get my instructions from the councils. I don’t have any great wealth of wisdom or so forth. I just understand what I’ve been instructed with and pass that on. Our leaders, our people, don’t like to get up in front of people and speak like that unless it’s our own people. Then they can really speak. So what is the nature of my discussion today, tonight? I had the good fortune to speak to your students here and some of your faculty this morning and it kind of outlined for me what I thought I should be talking about. First of all the introduction of ourselves: the Six Nations has about 18 communities, territories, both about half in Canada and half in the United States. We’re in three states. We’re in Wisconsin, New York and Oklahoma and two provinces in Canada, Quebec and Ontario. And then we have our people all over. Met an Onondaga girl tonight at dinner. She’s over here and her family was here and it was really nice to meet one of my young people here. So we travel far and wide and the message is always the same, it’s always about peace. But today some of the things that were told to us might be helpful here.

When The Peacemaker finally had laid out the whole system for us, he said, ‘Now I’m going to plant this great tree of peace, this great white pine.’ He said, ‘It’ll be the symbol for your Nation.’ He said, ‘It will have four white roots of truth for reaching the four cardinal directions of the earth.’ And he says, ‘Those people who have no place to go can follow the root back to its source and come under the protection of the great tree of peace.’ He said, among a lot of instructions to us as leaders, ‘Prepare yourself for the work that’s in front of you.’ He gave us a lot of instructions. Some of them I’ll tell you about. He said, ‘You as leaders will now have to have skin seven spans thick, seven spans like the bark of a tree,’ he said, ‘to withstand the abuse you’re going to take as leaders. And it won’t be from your enemies, it’s going to be from your family and your friends.’ He said, ‘And don’t wait for any thanks because that’ll be slow in coming.’ He said, ‘Move on.’ He said, ‘When people are angry and they speak in a loud voice, you have to listen to what they’re saying because they’re saying something.’ He said, ‘Try to hear the message through the anger.’ And he said, ‘You cannot respond in kind. Listen. Hear what they’re saying.’ And he said, ‘When you sit and you council for the welfare of the people, think not of yourself nor of your family nor even your generation.’ He said, ‘Make your decisions on behalf of the seventh generation coming. Those faces looking up from the earth,’ he said, ‘layer upon layer waiting their time.’ He said, ‘Defend them, protect them, they’re helpless, they’re in your hands. That’s your duty, your responsibility. You do that, you yourself will have peace.’

So he told us to look ahead. It was an instruction of responsibility of what we are supposed to do. So because I stand here as a representative of our Nation, still carrying the titles, seven generations ago someone was looking out for me or else I wouldn’t be here. So each one of us are any seventh generation and ahead of us are our responsibilities. And we have to take that seriously if they are to have a good life like ours. Our people have gone through a lot of pain and a lot of misery. We’ve suffered removals, genocide, yet we’re still here today. I heard the song and I knew we were still here and everywhere you go you’ll hear those songs. So today as a human being, as a species, I don’t think we have time for being Red or being Black or being White or being Yellow or Brown. I don’t think we have time for that anymore. We have to work together. We have to put aside all of that racism that’s been so destructive, continues. We just don’t have time for that. There’s changes coming and they’re close at hand and very soon we’re going to have to gather ourselves together around the world, and mobilize in our own defense, for our own survival, as a human species. We won’t have time for wars. We’ll need all the money that’s being spent on arms for defense of ourselves and protection of all of nature.

One time, long ago, sitting in the long house when we were having one of our ceremonies, Thanksgiving, we had a visitor who came from the north. He was a Mohawk and they asked him to sing and he was singing the [Native language], the Great Feather Dance. I couldn’t understand Mohawk, but I understood some of the words and then he spoke about my family, [Native word], the Wolf, and I said, ‘What is he saying?’ Because as they sang this Great Feather Dance, there’s a preamble where the beat is slow and they sang and they talk about a lot of things before the dance starts. This was all slow. In our Longhouse, the men are on one side of the house and the women on the other side of the house. So I went down to my grandmother who was sitting there and I said, ‘Gram, what is that man saying?’ And she says, ‘Oh,’ she says, ‘it’s an old song.’ She said, ‘I haven’t heard that in a long time.’ I said, ‘He’s talking about the wolf.’ She said, ‘Yes, he is.’ I said, ‘What is it?’ ‘Well,’ she said, ‘he’s talking about the road to the Creator and how beautiful it is and how we should all be walking in that direction and see the strawberries on the side of the road, the path that we’re taking.” The ‘Good Red Road’ they call it, the ‘Good Road.’ And she said, ‘What he’s saying is that on the side in a path like ours, walking beside us is a wolf, both going in the same direction.’ And I said, ‘What does that mean?’ She said, ‘Don’t know. It’s always been a mystery.’

I ponder that a lot of times and I think that he is the representative for the animal world, the spiritual way. And he’s my family, so I’m wondering what does that mean? And I think that he’s like a, well, our uncle maybe. And that whatever happens to the Wolf is going to happen to us. I think that’s what he is. He represents the earth itself and all the life on it. So when you look about and you see what’s going on today and how they’re treating the Wolf, it makes you think that we have to do better, we have to understand. Our nations, they do know about relationship and that’s what it is, it’s a relationship. Our Lakota friends and relatives they say, at the end of their prayer, ‘All our relations…all of our relations,’ and what they mean is literally all life. And when The Peacemaker was instructing the leaders so long ago, he said, ‘Now into your hands I am placing the responsibility for all life in this world.’ And he meant all the trees and all the fish and all the animals and all the medicine and all the water and everything there is, all life, and that’s a responsibility that has kept us here all these years. That’s how we’ve survived. He said, ‘Give thanks, be thankful for what you have.’ And so I see that our nations, the Indian nations, have created great ceremonies of thanksgiving, some that last for days, of thanksgiving and connection with your relatives. And I think that’s what people have to do now in the world. They have to recognize that they are not independent, that they’re just a part of life and you can’t remove all the animals or cut all the trees or catch all the fish without consequence. And so here we are, today’s times facing the consequence of our lost relationship and our lost responsibility.

When we raise leaders in the Longhouse, the old style, what they call the great condolence, it’s a long day. We go through all the laws, all the instructions, instructions to the leaders, instructions to the clan mothers, to the faith keepers, to the chiefs, and then instructions to the people. And it’s the longest instruction when it comes to the people. The people receive the most instruction because they have the most work to do. Leaders are there to help guide you, to be responsible, to initiate positions but the people are the ones that do the work, they’re the ones that have to be the nation. In our language, we don’t have a word for 'warrior.' That’s an English word and it comes from Europe and they were fighting over there. I’ve been traveling over there and I looked at their history, centuries and centuries of fighting. There’s great battlements over there, there’s castles, there’s amazing instruments of war. In Oslo, Norway, there’s a battlement and it starts way back somewhere around the 10th century and each year they made it bigger and bigger and soon it was big enough to hold horses and soon it was big enough to hold battalions of men and it just got bigger and bigger. And I looked on the walls and I saw the armaments and the shields, the axes, the battle axes and they were chipped and broken, heavy swords were nicked and the shields were sliced. And I said, ‘These people fight. These people fight hard.’ I said, ‘It must be hard to be that kind of a life where all you do is fight from one generation to the next.’ We call our men '[Native language].' '[Native language]' means ‘those men without titles who carry the bones of their ancestors on their backs.’ That’s what we call our men, not warrior, '[Native language],' responsible beings, strong men, strong. And they were [strong] or else we wouldn’t be here. And the women right there with them, strong women. Strong families, good instruction, close relations, carried us for a long time until we run across technology of war, weapons and guns, powder.

I won’t go through all that, but all that’s in our history, all that’s in the past and here it is today. And interesting that I’m standing here representative of the Haudenosaunee talking to you about peace and how do you get peace and how do you find peace. You find it by being thankful for what you have and you find it for being grateful for what you have and being in defense of what you have and being closely related to the life that sustains us. We’ve become so independent from the earth itself that we think we are independent and that’s brought us to this point here where we are. Now we’re about to see what the real authority is and how inconsequential we are. We have to work together now. We have to put aside all of this and we have to raise leaders about peace. We have to raise leaders who are going to look out for the people, who are going to look out for the earth and for the lands and the waters. The cod fishing up here off the east banks of the United States is broken; cod is broken. Cod that were once five feet long, hundreds of pounds, down to one and two pounds, fishing them right off the bottom. Can’t fish the cod anymore. Herring, we’re losing the herring. We’re polluting the oceans themselves. We’re polluting the earth itself. We’re leaving a legacy for our children which is really destructive. The high incidents of asthma in children in the east is amazing now, all the kids got asthma and that comes from bad air, that comes from pollution.

And so the instructions that our people had a long time ago still reverberate, long-term thinking, decision making, long-term thinking and you come across the discussion today about bottom lines. What is a bottom line? That’s an economic term, it means the bottom line. Is it a profit or is it a loss? It’s an economic term, that’s what bottom line means. Somebody asked me one time, they said, ‘Well, what’s your bottom line? Everybody’s got a bottom line.’ It caught me a little off guard. I said, ‘Gee, I never thought about that. What is our bottom line?’ And I thought about it awhile. I said, ‘You know, we don’t have a bottom line.’ He says, ‘Everybody’s got a bottom line.’ I said, ‘No, no, no.’ I said, ‘We don’t have a bottom line.’ I said, ‘We live in a cycle, a circle.’ I said, ‘We just go around and around. There’s no bottom line.’ He didn’t have an answer to that, but that in fact is the way it is. Our ceremonies go around the lunar clock, we reach the end it starts over again.

I was talking to the Mayans, our brothers down there in Central America, and I was saying to them, ‘Well, you guys have a calendar that’s coming to an end in 2012.’ ‘Yes,’ they said, ‘that’s true.’ I said, ‘Well, what’s going to happen? What’s going to happen when the calendar comes to an end?’ ‘Well,’ they said, ‘these are 5,000-year calendars so we’ll just start another one.’ Yeah, they made me feel that way too, a little relief there. They did say, though, they said, ‘However,’ they said, ‘there will be a period of enlightenment.’ ‘Oh, what is that, enlightenment?’ ‘Well, you see something.’ I’m thinking, ‘A period of enlightenment, what could that be?’

Well, I thought of this man that was working very hard, decided he was going to take a day off and he was out there on Long Island. Good fishing out there off the Montauk Point in Long Island, big fish out there, come right around the corner. So he said, ‘Well, I’m going to go fishing today, the heck with everything.’ So he went, nice boat, way out there. Hot day. He said, ‘The water looks good. I think I’ll jump in the water, take a little swim.’ So he did. He’s swimming around there, a little ways away from the boat and then he sees this big fin coming towards him, big fin. ‘Oh, no,’ he said. He’s looking at the boat, looking at the fin figuring, ‘how much time have I got?’ Well, that’s a moment of enlightenment. So I hope it’s not going to be that way for us.

The other thing The Peacemaker said was, he said, ‘Never take hope from the people.’ It’s a good instruction. Never take hope from the people. He said, ‘Find a way, find a way.’ So this is hard today, find a way. I’ve been on this road now about global warming for some time and human rights. I’ve been working for our human rights and maybe that’s another section of discussion we should have. In September 2007, September 12th of 2007, Indigenous peoples of the world weren’t peoples. We were populations. In the vernacular of human rights and political discussions in the United Nations, we were always referred to as populations because populations don’t have human rights. Peoples have human rights and for 30 years we’ve been battling in this United Nations for that to be recognized that we are people. And I wondered and I wondered, ‘Why is it or how could it be that there is a declaration, the universal declaration on human rights, so should we not be included and why aren’t we people and why aren’t we included?' Because all those 30 years we’ve been at the U.N., we’ve been developing our own declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples. They would not accept the term 'peoples.' They never used that term, we did. They didn’t. And 'peoples' with an 's'. 'People' is a generic term, it means everybody. But when you say 'peoples' with an 's', ah, now you’re talking about Tohono O’odham, you’re talking about Arapahoes, Cheyennes, Apaches, Senecas. You know there’s 561 Indian nations in this country today. That’s a lot of peoples and there were many, many more than that that are gone forever. Still there’s quite a few of us. Here we are. So 'peoples' with an 's', we were fighting to be recognized. Well, on September 13th, the next day, the United Nations adopted the Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples with an 's'. We made a huge step on the political scene of this world. Of course we always knew we were peoples but that’s a political term and highly charged. We learned that. When you start fussing around there with language, we learned about terminology, what tribes mean, what bands of Indians mean. That’s why we say we are nations. We are nations! The buffalos are nations. They are nations. The wolves are nations. That’s who we are. Yes! But they didn’t think so and we were subjugated.

And how is that, how can that be, how can you take a whole Indigenous people of the world and subjugate them to something less than human? Well, that was done in 1493 by the papal bulls of the Roman Catholic Church and they said in this directive, this bull, they said, this was the pope, ‘If there are no Christian nations in this new lands that you’ve discovered, then I declare those lands to be terra nullius, empty, empty lands,’ old Roman law, terra nullius, ‘Furthermore, if there are people there and they are not Christians, they do not have right of title to land. They have only the right of occupancy.’ And there, one year after the discovery of a whole hemisphere by fiat, it was taken by a declaration from a pope in Portugal. How about that? And we’ve been struggling ever since. We’ve been struggling to come out from underneath that. King of England said, ‘Well, I’m as good as a pope. I like that idea. Works for me.’ So he issued the same directive, 1496 to the Cabots, colonizing the new land. ‘By my authority the land is yours.’ Over here of course, here we were, happily planting. We were planting corn and they were planting flags. Big difference. It was pointed out today, this morning in our session, someone had noticed that just a few months ago that the Russians had taken a submarine up to the North Pole and planted a flag at the North Pole. Anybody remember that? Now why do you think they did that? It’s the Doctrine of Discovery. They took a lot of trouble to get a submarine and go to the bottom, find the North Pole and put the Russian flag there. They were claiming land. And if you remember, when the United States landed on the moon, what was the first thing they did? I think I saw a flag standing there wasn’t it? First thing. Doctrine of Discovery: it’s operational today. So you say, ‘How can that be?’

Well, it became installed in U.S. federal law in 1823 in Johnson vs. McIntosh and the issue was Indian land and Judge [John] Marshall, a very famous judge said, and it was not Indians fighting over lands, it was two white men fighting over Indian land, saying, ‘Boys, boys, boys. You’ve got it wrong,’ he said. ‘Don’t worry, that land doesn’t belong to the Indians,’ and recited the Doctrine of Discovery. And he went back and he quoted the King of England and the Cabots and installed that into U.S. federal law. 1955; Tee-hit-ton Indians made a land claim and they were defeated by the Doctrine of Discovery [in the] Supreme Court of the United States. Gitxsan Indians made a land claim, British Columbia 1991, not very long ago, and they lost the case to the Canadian government based on the Doctrine of Discovery. Last year, small town Sherrill, New York, suing the United Nation of New York for taxes, went to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court said, ‘Yes, Oneidas, you owe them money based on the Doctrine of Discovery.’ So you think that’s an old law? It’s operational today. That’s why we’re having all this hard time. So it’s racist and it’s also religious law, what you call…a country that proclaims that religion and state are separate. Not under those rules they’re not. How can that be?

Well, we’re studying that. We challenged the 'Holy C' because that’s the root of it all naturally and supported by all Christian nations because that became what they call the Law of Nations. They just made up a law and said, ‘Let’s all get in on it,’ so we lost our land. And if you go to court, you’re going to wind up right there. So there can’t be any justice in the court for us. So the paradigms have to change. When people realize that things are so bad and you understand what’s right and what’s wrong, then you have to change the paradigm itself. Common usage, well, if it’s wrong, it’s wrong. So we’re challenging now the Holy C and we did have a meeting. I gave a strong position on treaties and the Doctrine of Discovery last year at the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues at the United Nations and 10 minutes after the Holy C came up to us and said, ‘We have to have a meeting,’ because they have a seat at the United Nations. I don’t know why, but the Roman Catholic Church has a seat there. And they said, ‘We’ve got to have a meeting.’ So we said, ‘Fine. Fine. 500 years, about time isn’t it?’ So we went upstairs and we met with their leaders, the bishop, very well versed and he had his lawyers with him and he said, ‘What is it that you want?’ I said, ‘Well, you’re going to have to do something about this Doctrine of Discovery because it’s causing us great pain in the courts today, right now.’ He said, ‘Well, we don’t…we’ve disavowed that many times.’ I said, ‘Well, it’s not good enough. It’s not good enough. You’re going to have to do something better, more profound.’ And he said, ‘What would that be?’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘it would be good if your pope confessed to the Indians and Indigenous people that he was wrong, that the Church was wrong; a confession from the pope.’ I said, ‘You people believe in that confession pretty much, don’t you? Good for the soul they say. How about that?’ ‘Well, there’s got to be a better way,’ they said.

So we are in discussion with them. They did write a letter back but in the meantime we’ve talked to Pace University and they have agreed to do a moot court on the Doctrine of Discovery so we’re going to vet this issue. Right now they’re preparing a position to be made at the United Nations in Barcelona, Spain, this fall on the issue of the Doctrine of Discovery. And I would like to see a hearing held in every one of those Christian nations; France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, England, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Sweden. There’s your Christian nations and every one of them should be taught their own history because they don’t know about it, American people don’t know about it but the governments do, they know. So the battle is on. Be that as it may, and we will strive on, but I think before we see the result of that we’re going to be engulfed in global warming and it’s going to take our attention off of everything else except what we’re going to face as humanity.

I was working with a group called the Global Forum of Spiritual and Parliamentary Leaders for Human Survival. Through the ‘80s, ‘90s we were meeting on that issue [global warming] and there were very luminous individuals there like Mother Teresa, the Dali Lama and the Archbishop of Canterbury and Al Gore. Al Gore was talking back then. He was saying, ‘Hey, problem here.’ And we met and we met [in] Moscow hosted by President [Mikhail] Gorbachev, who’s a great environmentalist by the way, knows what he’s talking about. In 1991, we said, ‘Well, how long are we going to meet here? We’re going to meet, just meet, meet, meet and we don’t come to a conclusion, let’s get to a conclusion.’ So in Tokyo, we came to a conclusion and it was four words. After all these meetings, all these years, we came down to four words: 'value change for survival.' If you don’t change your values that are running this world right now, you’re not going to survive. You can’t run on the values you’re running on right now. You’re going to have to change it. You’re going to have to look to the Indians for that change. Thanksgiving, sharing. You’re going to have to share. Not accrue; share everything, big time. We’ve got a chance. We’ve got a chance. Just the fact that you’re all here. If you’re going to wait for leaders to lead you, see you on the other side. You have to do it yourself. You’ve got to do the leading. You have to step forward and you’ve got to speak up in defense of your families and your lives in the future. You don’t have time. Things are just going to get worse. Talk to the Inuits or the hunters up in Alaska they’ll tell you, ’Whoo hoo, it’s bad up here. Dogs won’t go out on the ice. Hunters don’t know whether they’re going to come back.’ They’ve got to go. They’re subsistence hunters. They’ve got to go but whether they come back is always a question now. They say the same thing in Greenland, same thing in Nunavut. It’s really…you can see the change up in the Arctic Circle better than any other place because it’s really moving at a very fast pace and it’s accelerating.

Now, this is the other thing that you have to keep in mind. The process that we’re engulfed in is a 'compound' action and if you ask what a compound is, compound is what Professor Einstein said was the most powerful law of the universe, a compound. We have two compounds going on right now. One is the ice melt and the other is human population. When I was 20 years old in 1950, there were 2.5 billion people in the world. Here we are 58 years later and there’s 6.7 billion people in the world. That’s a compound, unsustainable and growing as we stand. Every four days there’s another million people born. Did you know that, every four days? That means food, water, shelter and land for every one of those individuals. We’re pressing the caring capacity right now. That’s a reality. It’s hard news, but you’ve got to hear it. And so what do we do? Ah, that’s the question. So you do, you know what you do, you gather your people in a circle, your families, your community and you say to each other, ‘All right, let’s have a meeting here. Let’s have a meeting and let’s decide what we’re going to do.’ And you will, you will decide and you will find a way when you sit and talk to each other like that because that’s how we always used to do. The people will decide. So the fate of our own lives and of the future is in our hands, no one else’s and it doesn’t do me or anybody else any good to say, ‘Well, I told you so.’ That doesn’t mean anything. But mobilization, yes, and this country, the United States has the greatest possibility for change than any other country in the world. We use one quarter of the world’s resources. We’re less than six percent of the population of the world and we use one quarter of the world’s resources. Well, just our change will help a great deal. But that’s the values. You have to make up your mind.

In our meetings overseas talking about energy, a big issue water and energy, because water’s life, water’s food, energy. Well, for so long we were just level -- if you notice, you see the graphs -- for millions of years here we are, human beings just going along like this. And then suddenly about the beginning of the Industrial Revolution they called it, the graphs changed and they start going this way. They start climbing about 1850; both the population and…they’re just together. So what does that mean? It means at one time we were living by the energy of the sun for one day and we could only use one day’s energy. We couldn’t save it, couldn’t store it, there was no electricity, you had to work with the sun and we did. That’s how we planted, that’s how we harvested. We worked with the sun, one day at a time so we couldn’t exceed, there was no way. Well, when we discovered electricity, ooh, things changed. Now there was refrigeration, now there was storage, now there was energy storage and the more energy we made the more we used and if we make more energy today we’ll use more. Why? Because that’s our values; so we have to change our values then. Can we do it? Well, I say yes but that’s really your answer, not mine.

I mean we live at Onondaga, eh, we’re like you guys. We’re pretty close, the same kind of lifestyle but we do keep our ceremonies and we do know who we are and we do give thanks and I think that’s what you’re going to have to do. You’re going to have to find your ceremonies again, you’re going to have to find a way to give thanks, to get your relationship back, to understand how close you’re related to the trees that you’re cutting down, your grandfathers. There’s renewable if you know how to do things, if you’re judicious. Old Indians used to have a game; it was a game everybody played. And you’d be traveling back in the old days and make a camp beside a stream somewhere, river, good place to spend the night, you’d make a camp. Then the next day you would leave but before you left you would put back every leaf, every twig so that the next person coming along would have to look and look and look to see whether somebody was there. It was a game. It was a game about being thankful. It was a way to understand how to keep things so they wouldn’t even know you were there. What a good game. What a peaceful way to deal with Mother Earth. That was our style.

So we have to think about things like that. We have to work with one another, we have to be much more friendly than we always were and we have to share. That’s the biggest issue, share. It goes against the grain of private property, goes against the grain of capitalism, but that’s brought us to where we are today. So if you want to hang onto that, there’s consequence. Our options are fewer and fewer every day. Every day we don’t do something we lose a day. We’re approaching the point of no return when no matter what we do will not matter at all ever. We turn our fate over to the great systems of this earth who will regulate, who’ll regulate our population, will regulate the temperature of the earth and we will be involved there as a consequence. So this is what I’m telling you and I’m not an alarmist, but I have been running this road for a while now and I think people have to know the truth and this administration that’s presently in control has been really negligent about giving the truth of the situation of the earth itself because it interferes with business. Well, Telberg, they said, ‘Business as usual is over. You can’t do business as usual, you just can’t.’ And it’s going to be cooperation rather than competition. You’re going to cooperate. If you’re going to survive it’s going to be cooperation rather than competition. It goes against the grain of this great industrial state here but nevertheless it’s a reality: share, divest, share.

You’re going to have to deal with Africa. You’re going to have to look after Africa. What happens to Africa happens to us. You have to feed people where they live, you have to provide for them, otherwise they’re here. They’ll go where the water is; they’ll go where the food is. So great migrations pushed by circumstance is what we’re looking at. Anyway, I think that we have maybe another Katrina, the fires that you’ve been enduring here, they’re not going to go away, they’re just going to get worse. Fires are here, floods, wind, grandfather. We call them grandfathers, soft winds, but they’re powerful; they’re coming. And let’s hope we have foresight and I say let’s hope we have the will, the fortitude to take on the responsibility of value change for survival. We have to inspect ourselves, every one of us, myself included and we’ve just got to do better. We have to enlighten ourselves, we have to learn, we have to understand what is coming, then you can deal with it. We’re always instructed, ‘Don’t put your head down, never put your head down, keep your head up and keep your eyes open and look and see. Always keep your head up.’ That’s where we are right now. There’s something in the wind, we know that, so we have to find out specifically what it is.

So in that regard, I’ll be a little practical here, I’ve been…I use these books myself and, let me see, here’s one, 2008, called the State of the World: Innovations for a Sustainable Economy. Good ideas in there; practical approach to reality. You can find this book. It’s only about $20. It’s the 25th anniversary of the World Watch Institute and they have a huge science section and they’ve been collecting this information and every year they just add more on so they’re right up to date. Good book to educate yourself. It’s available for $20; you can spare that.

Here’s another one. Plan B, what’s that tell you? Plan B, we’re already in Plan B. Lester Brown. Okay, this is this year. Oh, man, this guy’s got it down. You get through this thing you’ll know what they’re talking about. But he doesn’t leave you without hope. He gives a lot of direction, a lot of ways to move and what to do so you’ve got to keep your head up and you’ve got to move and you’ve got to take…we don’t have time, time’s a factor now in everything really.

Okay. Let’s see what else we’ve got here. Oh, here’s one. Pagans in the Promised Land: Doctrine of Discovery. This is the hottest one. It’s just come out. You can get it on Amazon. Pagans in the Promised Land, this is the Doctrine of Discovery and this really discusses laws and all of the information here. Steve Newcomb. A young man came to us, elder circle 1991 carrying stuff under his arm saying, ‘Hey, you guys got to see what I got here.’ And that’s when we found out about the Doctrine of Discovery. Now it’s…we’re in consultation.

Here’s one: Voices of Indigenous People. This is the first statements that we made at the U.N. [in] 1993, the first time we addressed the United Nations. 1972, I was with a group of people who were trying to get to the United Nations and they wouldn’t let us across the street. We couldn’t go across the street. There was a phalanx of police and we had to be on this side of the street looking at the U.N. building, 1972. 1993, I was the first one to address the general assembly on the dais of the U.N. So the progress, hard fought progress to get there. But these are the words of the leaders of Indigenous people around the world, pretty much the same today as when they were done. But what’s good about this book here is it has the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in its pure form. Now the one that’s passed has been modified. We lost traction here and there but we did keep our main principle but we did lose some. But the original is right here in this book. So some day maybe you’ve got the time to see what that is.

Here’s another one. It’s written by Lindsey G. Robertson called Conquest by Law. This is again the Doctrine of Discovery. And here was a guy that was just curious about it. He got some names and he said, ‘Gee, I ought to follow what happened to these people.’ And he found out that the law firm that was fighting this case had all of these papers and that they put it in a big trunk, it was going to go to England. So he found the family in Ohio and he said, ‘Can I find out where you sent those…that trunk of papers on the Doctrine of Discovery, Johnson vs. McIntosh?’ They said, ‘Well, it never went. It’s downstairs in the cellar.’ So that’s what this book is. So stuff like that, stuff we didn’t have before we do now and things have got to change and fairness to everybody. I’m going to leave some of this stuff with the University.

Do you know that in March of this year that the State of Arizona supported the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a state? Did you know that? That’s a great event, first state in the Union to do that. I have it right here. I was here or up there in…so you can be proud. Here’s the event that’s in here. It also has a complete description of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as it is now. So I’m going to leave that here, people can copy [it] and you can look at statements made.

What else here? I know we have somewhere…oh, here we are. Statement: The ice is melting in the north. This was a statement that was given by the Indigenous people at the United Nations in the year 2000, eight years ago we said, ‘The ice is melting.’ Now they didn’t listen to us then but here we are halfway there but we’ve still got time. So I’ll leave this with you as well. So you’ll have something to work with and maybe it’ll be the great State of Arizona that changes everything, who knows and why not? You’ve got to start somewhere. You’ve got a lot of Indigenous people here, you’ve got a lot of Indian nations here still hanging in there.

So I think that’s enough for tonight, don’t you? I mean I don’t know what you were expecting. But we’re all in it together. There’s one river of life, we’re in our canoe, you’re in your boat, we’re on the same river. What happens to one happens to the other. So it’s in our hands; that’s the end of my message, I think. It’s up to us to organize. They’re doing it in Europe, big time so you’re not going to be alone. You’re not going to be alone. They’re looking for allies. We’re looking for allies. So as a runner from the Haudenosaunee, well, I’m walking now, I don’t run much anymore but I bring you this message as a fellow human being and as a man with a mission and I think it’s a good fight. I think it’s a good fight and I like a good fight. Let’s do it, let’s get on…let’s get on with it. Educate yourself. I’m leaving some stuff here and organize, sit in the circle, talk. Don’t just do something; make sure it’s a good move. Talk it over, work together because unity…

When The Peacemaker brought the five nations together he took an arrow and he broke the arrow, then he took five arrows for the five nations and he took the sinew of the deer and he bound those arrows together, he bound them together hard and then he said, ‘Here is your strength, to be united, one mind, one body, one heart, one spirit, your strength.’ We’re brothers and sisters, we can change blood. That’s how close we are.

Take your time, take your reflections and think about it and ponder it and talk and talk and work your way careful into a good move, strong move. Tell all your relations.” 

Honoring Nations: Gabriel Lopez and Shannon Martin: Government-to-Government Relations (Q&A)

Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development

Gabriel Lopez and Shannon Martin field questions from the audience about their nations' Honoring Nations award-winning programs.

Resource Type

Lopez, Gabriel. "Government-to-Government Relations (Q&A)." Honoring Nations symposium. Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Cambridge, Massachusetts. September 18, 2009. Presentation.

Martin, Shannon. "Government-to-Government Relations (Q&A)." Honoring Nations symposium. Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Cambridge, Massachusetts. September 18, 2009. Presentation.

Joseph P. Kalt:

"Vice chairman Lopez, I'd like to ask you a question. We of course talked a minute and heard your stories. Does anyone not get along with you anymore? It seems like you're able to strike MOUs [Memoranda of Understanding] with the city, with the private developers. Where are you still having trouble, where are your current battle lines drawn?"

Gabriel Lopez:

"I think it's educating. We have a lot of non-Natives that move into the area. We had, in Arizona we had our dove season. Many times what happens is we have new people that come into the area, don't know where the reservation starts. We posted signs, tribal, state, federal laws, trespassing signs. I can go back out, I usually ride, I'm an avid horseback rider and I ride out there after the season's over and I'll find cuts. People will come in, ATVs will go into washes, will come in and try to ride all over. And we try to discuss that with the city and let them know [because] they have their own city website to voice our concerns. And by a joint venture we're starting to work on that now. But also with other developers that are coming into the area and trying to educate them and having them come to the -- as a consultation with the community -- to voice our concerns and what we want. And like I said, we really don't want to hamper growth, we know it's coming and we have to handle it, we have to deal with it. But bring us to the table so we can voice our concerns. I think maybe that's what -- and I think that's what's working. But there's still a lot to be done.

For instance, Roman and I were over at federal EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] when the presentation was done back in Arizona, we were still on the battlegrounds fighting with the EPA there. It's an ongoing process, and we just need to stay up on top of that. And as tribal leaders, because when there's only a five-member council, we can't possibly get to all of them, so a lot of times we kind of rely on our staff. We'll hear about it and that's how the task force came out."

Audience member:


Duane Champagne:

"Oh, back there."

Charlie O'Hara:

"...remarks about, particularly about the EPA and I think the EPA has this stovepipe kind of funding by media, which is totally inappropriate for tribes. For, I don't know how many, 15 years we've been capacity building under GAP [General Assistance Program], but there's no mechanisms for implementation. It's a really outdated system and it has to be changed."

Duane Champagne:

"There's a question in the back."

Audience member:

"I do have a question but I do have a comment as well. You want to talk about how to take over and utilize your natural liberty to enforce your -- a watershed council is a good example of retaking responsibility for your environment and just doing what you need to do. It's a great example. I'm glad that Pat's here.

My question though is for Shannon. How did -- what was the strategy or the argument when people would come to you from the educated side, academia, and maybe try to pressure you that you didn't know what you were doing because you didn't have the letters behind your name?"

Shannon Martin:

"Well, we continue to nurture, first and foremost, those professionals that do have the letters behind their name and keeping those as close to us as we can through consultative relationships. Our curator William Johnson and I, again we were subjected to some serious scrutiny during, throughout the whole course of this process. And that, because we didn't have the scholarship behind us -- as far as best practice in anthropology, archaeology, 'any-ology' -- our concerns and our process in working through those ideas and those methods with our tribal community council and elders, they were at various points dismissed by city officials, by the Genesee County Land Bank, [because] we continued to advise them throughout this process as to what they needed to do to mitigate. We even provided legwork in giving them two bids for archaeological consulting crews -- to come in and take care of the damage -- with the tribe overseeing and monitoring. But again all of that, of course, was dismissed because of lack of funding from the City of Flint and from the Genesee County Land Bank.

The unfortunate situation with HUD [Department of Housing and Urban Development] -- who has been a friend to tribes across this country in providing adequate funding -- is that HUD was slippery in this situation. They were at the negotiating tables within the first couple of meetings of this disturbance, but then soon realized that once the tribal council had imposed a cease-and-desist order -- that was going to be adhered to by the city officials and the Genesee County Land Bank, the landowners -- HUD pulled out of the project. They slipped out of it on a technicality, stating that the funding that was earmarked for this project, which was essentially the pouring of the basements, the cement basements, because that part of the agreement had not been reached, they then pulled their funding from the project. So in doing so there were these, City of Flint and Genesee County Land Bank didn't have to comply with historic preservation laws. So the court -- the tribe had no recourse to count on national NAGPRA [Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act] for their support, but more importantly, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation [ACHP] -- the Section 106 Law, which would directly implicate this process -- and HUD would have to provide funding to mitigate.

So the onus of all this coordination fell squarely upon the shoulders of the tribe. And an unfortunate situation is resulting in an unfortunate precedent-setting event. Because in doing so, and us addressing and putting together this proposal based on all of these individuals' tribal and archaeology consultants, and then the tribe bearing the responsibility to provide the funding for the mitigation, that precedence has been set in which -- we weighed that heavily throughout the process because we knew that on one scale was this precedence. On the other end of the scale was making sure we were respecting and doing what was culturally appropriate to take care of these ancestors at our cost. So now there are going to be some scholarly articles written on this, because the situation was just layered in complexity.

And we're fearful now, really, as a tribe that they're going to be private landholders. And if there is a federal undertaking that they're going to pull out of the project if there's an overt discovery. And who are they going to turn to be responsible to mitigate and to come up with a proposal to recover and rebury? The local tribe. And if that tribe doesn't have the resources that -- the Saginaw Chippewa fortunately has the resources to do this work -- that local tribe is going to have to possibly stand by and watch it just get bulldozed back in, without any respect or due process for the ancestral remains."

Josh Weston:

"Good afternoon everybody. My name's Josh Weston. I'm the chairman or the president for Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe who we started out the session with. I had one general comment to make and then I've got a question for the cultural portion of it.

I just wanted to add a little bit about the educating the public, the being able and willing to work with your local governments both tribal and city, state and federal has been and is continuing, I'm sure for most tribes, an uphill battle. And as far as I'm concerned we continue to try to address some of those problems and work through our differences of opinion. We're kind of at a head road with our project. Our chief is leaving us; he's the only one of two, well, three now. One of our members finally made it onto the tribal police department and he's leaving to better himself. So it's going to be an interesting discussion on how we continue forward. And we hope that both communities can come to some agreement on how we can make that transition, one way or another.

The second part of the comment or the question I wanted to ask was, in our area we have a tribe to the south of us that is having, has had problems with non-members into burial sites and taking artifacts and removing of the remains and that sort, in that area. And part of the problem is that they can't do anything about it. They can't hold when they report. It's kind of in an area where there's a [Army] Corps of Engineers and there's that no man's jurisdiction -- the tribe doesn't have jurisdiction, the state really doesn't have any jurisdiction, the U.S. attorneys don't want to prosecute it because nobody's gotten hurt to a certain extent. So they kind of fall into that huge void of, 'Yeah, we have to protect these people without hurting them and letting them take our remains away from those sites,' and then trying to go after them afterwards for bringing them home. So I was just wondering, had you had any experience with any type of that jurisdictional problem when it comes to -- do you have any -- was there any federal land in there where you kind of had some of these problems? And maybe if you could talk about that a little bit."

Shannon Martin:

"Not in relationship to burial site desecration on federal or state land, but we are currently addressing a sacred site that is state land. Because like many other states in the union, Michigan is [experiencing a] lack of resources and capital to maintain certain state parks. And there is a state park that is managed by three agencies, that's the Department of History, Arts and Libraries, the Michigan Museum Association and the Department of Natural Resources. The sacred site is the Sanilac Petroglyphs and it falls within the historic territory of the tribe. We have been carefully and diligently monitoring the site because it has fallen into neglect. Individuals are making their way into this petroglyph site that at one time contained over 300 distinct teachings or cultural etchings in our language, we call it [Anishinaabe language], which is 'teachings on stone.' These petroglyph carvings have been altered, they've been literally bore out of the sandstone site, out of the rock itself, and have been taken away. And we've been beginning to more urgently address this issue and insert ourselves, to call these agencies together and meet with us in tribal council, to place on the table, a management plan and/or a plan for them to turn this 274 acres, that contains the site, over to the tribe if need be. So we've been trying to compel them to, 'Let us manage it, let us take care of it. We have the resources -- and/or sell it to us at a fair price. Let's buy it and take care of it.' So that's one issue that we're currently working on because the site is so significant to the cultural and collective history of the Anishinaabe people of the Great Lakes region. And the tribe is taking -- through our work at the Ziibiwing Center -- these proactive measures to begin calling together these different agencies and really trying to compel them to turn the management over.

And we're beginning to, we are going to work with Dr. Sonya Atalay, an Ojibway archaeologist out of Indiana University through a program, a project, a grant project called IPINCH, which is the Intellectual Property Issues and Cultural Heritage project, and it's an international multi-disciplinary grant that is being administered through Simon Frasier University in British Columbia. And our project specifically addresses the long-term plan and management of the Sanilac Petroglyphs, so that we can protect it and we can monitor it so that it doesn't fall under disrespect, vandalism and neglect. But as far as desecration of burial sites, that's something we haven't encountered on federal or state land, just private land."

Duane Champagne:

"Do we have any more comments? Here. Oren, in front here."

Oren Lyons:

"I want to make a comment on your opening statement about the wampum and protocol and governance. Rick Hill, from Tuscarora, has been doing a research project and is now into three volumes of transactions using wampum, the first 400 years here. And just to add some information to you that First Continental Congress, John Hancock, one of his first duties was to make a wampum belt. And that was the belt that he used for peace and neutrality. As they were getting ready to fight one another, we being the Six Nation Iroquois said, 'Well, look, we know your father and we know you.' And, 'Look at this as a fight, the father and son.' And, 'We don't think it's appropriate for us to be in on one side or the other.' And they said, 'Thank you, because that was going to be our second request. If you don't fight with us, don't fight against us.' And so that belt was made by John Hancock, as one of his first duties as president of the Continental Congress. And later George Washington also made a belt, 1794 Canandaigua Treaty, called the George Washington Covenant, is about a six-foot wampum belt with the thirteen colonies; and also...from our position, peasant from his position. And I just want to add that on because, just, if you think about it, here we are -- 1794, well into the new United States -- and they are still using wampum as protocol."

Duane Champagne:

"Thank you."

Honoring Nations: Oren Lyons: Wounded Knee II: Honoring the Legacy of Ted Kennedy

Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development

Onondaga Chief and Faithkeeper Oren Lyons shares a story about late U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy's crucial yet little-known role in averting an attack by the federal government on those who took over Wounded Knee in 1973.

Resource Type

Lyons, Oren. "Wounded Knee II: Honoring the Legacy of Ted Kennedy." Honoring Nations symposium. Harvard Project for American Indian Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Cambridge, Massachusetts. September 16-18, 2009. Presentation.

"I'm going to tell a little story about Ted Kennedy. Rick [Hill] and I come from a rough-and-tumble neighborhood and we grew up in rough-and-tumble times; we have thick skin. And sometimes these things occur. It's not badly intentioned, it's just the way we are.

Anyway, it was in the later part of the standoff at Wounded Knee and the Lakota Treaty Council along with [Frank] Fools Crow, Matthew King, [Frank] Kills Enemy, sent emissaries to the Onondaga Nation; they wanted help. And because we were a traditional system and we talk about peace, they came and they asked if we could help to bring peace to this fight at Wounded Knee. And so we did and we went out. I talked with Secretary of State [William] Rogers before I left. If you remember during that time, President [Richard] Nixon was in a hole -- he had disappeared; he was under tremendous pressure. And the White House was under [John] Erlichman and [H.R.] Halderman. Anyway, Secretary of State Rogers said, he said, ‘Lakotas shooting Lakotas is one thing.' He said, ‘Lakotas shooting Iroquois is another.' And I said, ‘Well, we're not there to be shooting at one another. We're there to try to bring peace.' And he said, ‘Well,' he said, ‘we are not in charge of what's going on out there.' He said, ‘We've sent government officials there and they've been put in jail by the FBI.' He said, ‘They're out of control.' He said, ‘We can't guarantee...' I said, ‘I'm not asking for a guarantee. I'm just telling you we're going out there and I don't want you shooting me.' So he said, ‘Well, talk to our new Bureau of Indian Affairs man at Lakota at Pine Ridge before you go in.' I said, ‘Oh, well.'

So we had a number of people at Wounded Knee. We had, I don't know, maybe 25-40. We had a lot of people there. And Indian nations across the country had not publicly supported that, but Six Nations did. We made a public statement and we said we are going out there and we did. Anyway, I won't go through all that what happened there and so forth, but when we returned...because there was the highest security of a war zone that they said they had ever seen. I was talking to the journalists; they couldn't get further than Pine Ridge, which was some miles away from Wounded Knee. Anyway, we returned and we had given our contact number. And we said, ‘We're going to try to get this information to Washington and we'll see, you tell us.' So we received a message coming from a woman who was really a leader out there, tough fighter woman. And she said, ‘They're moving troops in. They moved in the perimeter about 100 yards last night, which is about 300 yards, which makes the fire very lethal in moving 100 yards. And the fire becomes very lethal. There were heavy exchanges of gunfire out there. And one night I estimated, we estimated over 70,000 rounds coming in. It was a real fight. And anyway, they said they're moving and they're going to assault on Friday. The information we have they're going to assault on Friday and they're going to use gas.' And I saw the canisters when we went into Pine Ridge. I saw those big canisters. I said, ‘What are those things for?' and got no answer. But anyway, I knew they had the gas there.

So we called the Chiefs, the Six Nation Chiefs who were on alert to move and we said, ‘Well, we have an option here. We have either to go to Wounded Knee right now or to Washington to see if we can avert.' And we had to make up our mind. I said, ‘Well, since they're just putting everybody in jail that showed up over there, we'd probably wind up in jail right away and be of no use. So maybe we better go to Washington.' So they sent two of us down, Chief [Irving] Powless and myself. This was '73, [I was] a little bit younger and a little bit springier than I am right now. And they said, 'See if you can talk to somebody and set up meetings for us.' So we went and we could get nowhere, nowhere. Monday went by, Tuesday went by; every door was shut. Nobody wanted to talk to us and everybody was in a hole, nobody wanted to move down there. They were paralyzed; Washington was paralyzed.

It was Tuesday night and I said to Irv, I said, ‘We better call the Chiefs, tell them to come down. Maybe all of us can do something.' So we called them and they came in the next morning -- 16 chiefs, some as old as eighty -- my age right now. So anyway, we went and all day Wednesday. We finally broke through with a congressman from New York, Congressman Hadley. And he met with us. And I said, ‘Okay,' I said, ‘we need to get to somebody who can get to the White House who can stop this assault, which is planned for Friday.' And we couldn't. He said, ‘Okay.' He's says, ‘I'll give you [James] Abourezk.' And we went to  Abourezk . And curiously hostile, I don't know what it was, but our message was simply, ‘Look, we're not here to negotiate. We're here to tell you that they've cut off food supplies, which is against all of the rules of war. They're using starvation as a process.' And we went through, ‘These are 10 points we had.' And we said, ‘We're just here to tell you that on Friday there's a planned assault going in, and it's up to you to stop it. And when we leave here you'll be one that knows. And when Friday comes and the assault comes, we'll make it public that you knew and that's all we have to say.' And that was our message.

And we went around and we bounced off of Ted Kennedy's staff about three times. And then somewhere Thursday night, Thursday night -- we were tired, a lot of the old man. Luckily, it's an amazing thing; there was a young man who was driving a blue van. It had no windows. And he stopped and he said, ‘Where are you guys going?' We were going back and forth from the Senate to the House, Senate to the House. It's a long walk. I said, ‘Well, we're trying to do something about Wounded Knee.' He says, ‘Can I help you?' I said, ‘Yeah, give us a ride.' So he stayed with us all day moving us back and forth going to where we had to go. It was an amazing thing, helped us a lot because we had some old men there.

Anyway, Thursday night, we got a call from Kennedy's office. ‘I understand that you want to have a meeting.' ‘Yes, sir.' ‘Would you please come?' ‘Yes, sir.' And that was about 8 o'clock. So we went to his office and he had a beautiful office. He had the paneled walls -- big. And him and his staff were standing there, very formal. And so we drew ourselves up into a formal response. And he said, ‘What can I do for you?' We said, ‘Well, we're here to deliver a message. And the message is that tomorrow there's a planned assault on Wounded Knee,' and gave him our position. And he said, ‘You know,' he said, ‘I want you men to relax, sit down, have a seat, you've had a hard time.' He said, ‘Do you think you're hostile?' He said, ‘I just came from a Senate session where we have senators advocating a cavalry charge tomorrow.' He said, ‘I know what you're talking about.. I said, ‘Well,' I said, ‘all we have is the information, and it's confirmed.' And he said, ‘There's real hostility there, a cavalry charge [in] 1973.' And I said, ‘Well, we're here to see what we can do to stop it.' He picked up the phone, he said, ‘Have a seat, sit down.' And he called the White House, and I think it was Erlichman who picked up the phone. And he really, he really rendered a tirade that was memorable. And he said, ‘Don't you do it. If you do it,' he says, ‘we're going to have your ass.' And then he said, ‘I'm going to be on alert now,' and he finished his statement. And we looked at him, we thanked him. He said, ‘You men had anything to eat?' And we said, ‘Not yet.' He said, ‘It's pretty hard to get something around here this time of night.' He said, ‘But let me call and you guys go over.' And he says, ‘It's going to be on me.' So we had a big steak.

And that night I had to go. I had to leave that group and go on up to New York to try to do the same thing at the U.N. [United Nations]. And the men went home and we called back over there and told him, 'We think we've stopped it, but don't count on it,' because it was pretty bad out there. And as it turned out, it did stop the assault. And this past month, we were visiting [Washington, D.C.], we had planned to go over to Mr. Kennedy's office and hand him this letter of thank you. And it just so happened he couldn't make it there that day so he never received that letter. So we're going to send it to the family. But very few people know that. But when it was really needed and when we couldn't find maybe three or four friends on the [Capitol] Hill, he stood pretty tall. And we're ever grateful and to the whole family as a matter of fact. I think that if Robert Kennedy lived, he would have been the greatest advocate for Indians that this country would have ever seen [because] he was in that direction heavily. But that's the way it is. None of us are guaranteed to see sundown today. So that's the way life is. But I think you should know that this man has gone through a lot and anybody in public office catches hell, as you know. And I just wanted you to have that story about him. We'll make sure his family hears it, too. Thank you."

Michael K. Mitchell: What I Wish I Knew Before I Took Office

Native Nations Institute

Mohawk Council of Akwesasne Grand Chief Michael K. Mitchell reflects on his role as a modern elected leader of his nation. Mitchell encourages small changes in terminology and ideology that in turn will change the community's mindset about nation rebuilding and what is possible.

Resource Type

Mitchell, Michael K. "What I Wish I Knew Before I Took Office." Emerging Leaders Seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. March 25, 2009. Presentation.

"First, I want to start by offering my congratulations for each and every new member of council, chief or council member or administrator. I imagine that's the purpose that you're all here. What can we learn from one another? I try to make my presentation simple. He was talking about a book that I'm working on. I took some notes from there and it's been passed around. You'll see it. It says 'My Introduction to Akwesasne Politics.' I want to go back to being a chief in Canada. And along the way that I'm telling my story, I want you to think about what commonalities that we have on reservations in the [United] States, reservation politics and reserve politics in Canada. A while ago it was mentioned that we are governed by federal legislation in Canada called the Indian Act. I guess the closest thing that comes to it in the States is the Indian Reorganization [Act] law. My story that I want to share with you pertains to, a lot to people that raised me. My greatest influence was my grandfather and grandmother and how they raised me. They taught me the traditions, the spiritual life at a very young age growing up, the language; and I was groomed to be a leader in the Longhouse, in the traditional governance. And somewhere along the way, life took a detour because I didn't wind up being a traditional chief; I wound up being an elected chief for over 20 years. And that's the story that I want to share with you.

You see, in every Native American community -- large or small, medium, close to urban or way off isolated area -- we have our politics. And when election comes around, there's different groups that make up the society. You're either poor, or there's a casino or revenue base of some kind, and it controls the lifestyle of the people. You're either in or out. Religion: you're either very traditional or very Christian. Very seldom is there a group that's kind of like both. So from 30, 40, 50 years ago, 100 years to recent years, that has been the trend. Well, my grandfather was a strong traditional. He hated the elected system. And his followers, and his people that he's part of in the Longhouse, dead set against the elected system of governance. And so they belong to a traditional governance of the Iroquois Confederacy, which is the Mohawks, the Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, Senecas, and later the Tuscaroras. And that union, as ancient as it was, followed a very traditional form of governance. The women actually put up the leaders. And according to the clans, if they were not good leaders, the women would take you out of office. And so those were the principles of governance, as compared to a modern elected system. And in Akwesasne we were governed under the Indian Act, a federal national legislation.

You would run for office for two years, depending on what is in place, economically and the mood. Basically, in Akwesasne, you get in office as a councilor and 12 chiefs sat around the table. And out of the 12 they would elect a head chief out of the 12 who would become the head chief. But it's a system that was in place for a long time. Well, I was elected in that system. And the story that I want to share with you is, "˜How did I get involved in the elected system?' Well, over the last hundred years in Akwesasne, about every ten years we'd have a war of some kind between the elected system on the Canadian side and the tribal elected system on the American side and the traditional leaders. Three governments; two elected and one traditional. And it seems like we have a crisis every ten years of some kind internally. And there's deep-seated hatred and mistrust among the leadership of the three governments. As it went on, in my time I saw three major ones where we're pointing guns at each other, Native Americans pointing guns at each other. It was a time when the elders said, "˜We've got to stop this. And we've got to try to send some of our people who are on the traditional side to run in an elected system and see if we can change the mindset of the other half.'

You see, in Canada we were educated, the majority, by what we call the Indian residential school system. The other part was the reserve day system. Church had a lot to do with it; government had a lot to do with it. And how you grew up in the Native community depended on what you were taught. And so one group said, "˜We're the Christian side; we're a lot better than the pagan side.' And so that internal difference started from the day that you were born. So there could be no peace. Well, in my time, I ran a cultural center in the community. And I didn't make any difference in treating people whether they were traditional or elected followers or Christian. My purpose was to serve everyone. And when wars started we always stayed neutral. So this idea of finding a person to run, with the traditional side saying, "˜We ought to try to get Mike to get into that elected system and see if he can turn things around'; this is after one of our wars. Well, after a lot of discussions, a lot of thinking, 'What was the idea behind this?,' I agreed to run. And the story that's in those documents that we passed around was my adventure in being a modern-day elected leader. It's pretty rough.

The first, after the elections, I got elected by the 12 chiefs to be the head chief. They said, "˜We'll string him up in a couple weeks.' My office was constantly occupied for six months. And the only way it ended was a Mohawk fighting another Mohawk, in this case fighting the previous chief, before peace prevailed. But following that, what would a person do in a situation like that was tackle the things that affected us from the outside; and that was the Department of Indian Affairs, the way they told us to govern. Mostly through the two years somebody was protesting an election. You could go to court; you could appeal to the government. So in that first six months we had meetings in the community and asked them if we could bring home and let the community make their own election law, devise an election code where things would be settled at home. When we finished that, we had a vote. And when the people voted -- see Longhouse people, traditional people don't vote. So the first act was to get the elected followers to vote on an issue. After that was finished, then I went over to the traditional side and asked them to have clan meetings. And by majority or consensus they would arrive at a decision on a traditional manner. However, both sides agreed that we should control our own elective system. And when they found out that they both agree on a system, they looked at each other and said, "˜Geez, we actually agreed on something.'

Then we tackled membership. Who should be a member of our nation, and does culture and tradition come into it? Does a clan, having a clan have something to do with being a member? Who gets to be a member? Do you have to have both parents be Native? Is there room for a person who's half? And all those questions went out into our discussions in the community. And at the end, another year later, we had another vote. And little by little we started chipping away, taking these authorities away from Ottawa, from the Indian Act, and bringing it home to a community-based process. And in these meetings we invited finally the tribe to sit with us and the Nation council to sit. I brought out agenda items like land claims, tourism, economic development, just to look at it, inviting them for their opinions. What could we do as one people?

Akwesasne, the international borderline runs right through the middle of our territory. One half is in Canada, the other half is in the United States. One half that is in Canada is in Ontario and the other half in Canada is in Quebec. So you can't be more divided than that. And then of course, historically, the mindset of the people is always one of division. Now you learn a great lesson. Being under the Indian Act election only gave you two years. And when I became chief they were in a deficit of over $2.5 million and they only had a $5 million operating budget. That's because on the outside the government controlled everything. The Indian agent had left recently but all his people still controlled...if you want education dollars you have to ask a DIA [Department of Indian Affairs] official to come down and look at your proposal, what you want to do. He'll decide how much money you're going to get. If you want economic development, if you want housing, capital works, it's the same thing. Little by little we trained our people. First they came home, second let's make our own decisions, let's do our own planning and start taking that authority away from Indian Affairs. And it's this little community-based mindset.

I'm going back a little bit. We didn't think like Mohawk Nation. We had no concept of a nation mentality. Over the last hundred years or so, we were engrained in thinking Indian Act way. We were 'Band Indians.' We were the St. Regis Band, we went to the St. Regis Band office, we had a Band administrator; our community was a small Mohawk band of Indians. So the terminology was obvious that the federal government had engrained in us to think less of ourselves. If you said 'Nation,' you were an enemy; you were hostile. Well, my grandfather was a hostile; he was traditional and he said our people are a nation. So that mentality only came from a certain group of people. So I started asking the council to have meetings in the community to throw issues out to the community. You had a lot of public meetings. And in those meetings we raised the issue, 'Why do we consider ourselves to be inferior?' And we went through a change of name from the St. Regis Band to the Mohawks of Akwesasne. Akwesasne is our traditional Mohawk name. That passed. Then we made a flag. That passed. A community flag to fly with our nation flag. Council changed the name from the St. Regis Band Council to the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne. We're no longer a reserve or a reservation, we were a territory. 'You have entered the Territory of the Mohawk Nation.' And it's just a mentality of the young people thinking differently of themselves. This is a useful education process because the community's in deficit, you ain't going to be able to spend a whole lot of money, so let's look at our mentality. How do we view ourselves, especially the ones that are coming up, the next generation? How does that impact their thinking? And so we did that. We started concentrating on who we are, how do we perceive ourselves as [Mohawk language], as First Nations. And by the time we got done we made a whole mess of changes that was fun.

My council that made up the governance, a lot of the old timers couldn't get away from saying the word 'band.' So we made a game. I put a cup in the middle of the council table and asked all the chiefs, "˜If any of you say 'band' in our meetings anytime in our discussions, I want you to put a quarter in there.' Pretty soon we have to have three cups in there because they kept tripping up. But they voluntarily put in there, "˜I'll get it, I'll get it.' And he'd mess up again, he'd put a couple more dollars in there. Pretty soon we had a big coffee fund set aside. Well, the administration offices heard about this little nation-building game and they started doing that and it afflicted the staff. And people in the community started hearing about this little game and it affected them too, but it affected them in a positive way because now we're all thinking that. Undoing a mindset that was given to us.

I will ask, 'What could I have learned coming into a system, an elected system, a divided community, deep roots in hatred?' Well, I would have probably, as a leader, learned more about the history of the Indian Act and how Indian Affairs does its business because for 20 years it was a game, a chess game of trying to turn things around -- put more tradition, more community values, more awareness, preparing the next generation -- and knowing that you had to go against the stumbling blocks of government interference from the outside. It was a nice battle, counter battles, but that's what I would have really like to have seen is the government saying, "˜You want to take over your governance. You want a representation of your people in getting them involved in your politics. We'll step out of the way.' Eventually they did, but it was always through different battles that we had to go through. But now the people are in a fighting mood.

And I just want to finish off by saying nowadays they find a way to sit together. The tribal council, the Mohawk council, and the Nation council actually sit together and look at the issue that impacts the community. And so there are many things that you always learn and there are many things that you are grateful that you've given to the community and they're nation-minded. They're proud of their Mohawk heritage, it's engrained in them. Governance is an issue that will always be there because one side is American, the other side is Canadian and that international border plays havoc with us.

We are well known in North America as the smuggling capital. We smuggle cigarettes, make a lot of money doing it, too. And so within our community there's a little power struggle. The business community have a lot of influence, have a lot of power underground by the dark-of-night economy. And then you try to create a legitimate economy. So there are always going to be things like that that are going to happen, but we're talking to each other. Drugs is a problem of being stuff that's smuggled across; guns, now aliens, terrorism. When 9/11 happened they thought they came through Akwesasne. CNN had these maps, "˜This Mohawk Nation community here, that's where they came from.' A few weeks later they said, "˜Oh, we might have made a mistake,' but we get blamed right away.

What did I learn, what did the community learn about our politics and the way we do things? Talk to each other, talk to your enemy, talk to your elder, talk to your people in the community. So that's my story."

Tribal Governments Come In Many Forms


When the U.S. and Canadian governments suggest and support Western-style governments for indigenous nations, they are trying to improve Native government and make it more compatible with national government. Indigenous nations have diverse political arrangements and forms of government. When adapting to present-day nation states and market economies, if possible, indigenous nations will make political changes that express their historical political and cultural relations...

Resource Type

Champagne, Duane. "Tribal Governments Come In Many Forms." Indian Country Today Media Network. June 23, 2015. Article. (, accessed June 24, 2015)

Stirring the Ashes


One of the biggest challenges for any people is broad participation in the issues that affect everyone. And when you stop and think about it, there is very little from the smallest ripples in a family to major calamities in a community that occurs without impacting others.

The notion of “mind your own business” or “let someone else handle it” has become commonplace in many cultures. As we observe the flaws of some of these other cultures and societies there are those among us that would like to think the Haudenosaunee lived in a utopian society where conflict and controversy could never find a home. We speak of “the good mind” as though our ancestors never had bad thoughts...

Native Nations
Resource Type

Kane, John. "Stirring the Ashes." Let's Talk Native. The Two Row Times. April 1, 2014. Opinion. (, accessed January 22, 2024)

Iroquois women enjoyed equality long before 1492


Normal perceptions regarding Women’s History Month revolve around the struggle for women’s political equality in the United States. Yet, many citizens in the U.S. would not suspect that within some American Indian culture, long before Columbus ventured across the Atlantic Ocean, native women enjoyed an equality only dreamed of by the women of European descent. One prominent American Indian tribe which genuinely manifested an attitude of respect and trust toward women existed within the “Iroquois League,” later known as the “Iroquois Confederation.”...

Native Nations
Resource Type

Jamison, Dennis. "Iroquois women enjoyed equality long before 1492." Communities Digital News. March 4, 2014. Article. (, accessed March 10, 2014)