Keeping the Great Law alive in Oneida

The Great Law, the Great Peace, the Great Good, the Great Warm Feeling, or whatever the title one feels is appropriate, is the Creator’s message of peace that was given by Peacemaker to the Mohawks first then spread to other Haudenosaunee Nations and then spread further to other Nations across Turtle Island in the time before and after European contact.

Great Law – Andrew: Interview

A recital of that timeless message was given at a huge gathering at Oneida of the Thames last week, which was attended by more than a thousand Onkwehon:we people over the course of the event.

According to the Great Law itself, this message was to be delivered in its entirety to all Haudenosaunee people annually with a grand event every five years, to keep the people focused and united upon what it means to be Haudenosaunee. But in recent decades the organized annual reading has been neglected for a variety of reasons, some imposed by the colonial government and some even self-imposed.

But that situation seems to be correcting itself as more and more younger people are participating in a renaissance of Haudenosaunee culture and politics.

This interest by the youth was evident throughout the Great Law Recital hosted at Oneida of the Thames.

Many spoke of the sense of community that was immediately felt as hundreds arrived, all with one mind and one spirit to revisit the Peacemaker’s message, not as an old tradition from an age long past, but as a relevant and living message not only intended for the Haudenosaunee, but for all Nations, all peoples and all cultures across the world.

Six Nation’s Tehakanale (aka John Henhawk) made it to all but the last day of the event, and came back enriched and rejuvenated by the experience.

“It started off with the Peacemaker’s story as told in the language by the elders,” says Tehakanale. “It was then spoken in English (for those who have lost their language).”

“That is such an amazing story,” he says. “It is especially relevant the way the world is today with all the wars taking place right now.”

Tehakanale draws a parallel between what the Onkwehon:we world of Turtle Island was like in that day, and the condition of the world today. He believes that the message of the Great Peace is every bit as relevant today as it was then, and maybe even more so.

“When you look at what the world is like today and look at the history of the Haudenosaunee people you can see that we were fighting each other, hating each other, there was bloodshed and war everywhere,” he says. “But then there came a time when Peacemaker brought peace to a warring world. Our Nations came together with that acknowledgement that we were not going to live that way any longer.”

As a young adult, Tehakanale was like most other Haudenosaunee people his age. He didn’t know very much about who he was in the grand scale of things.

“I’d hear people talk about the Great Law,” he says. “But just in bits and pieces.”

Last year, a group of people from Six Nations conducted a recital at the Six Nations Community Hall and Arena, which was also well attended. But the Confederacy Chiefs of Six Nations of the Grand River did not endorse the reading because they felt it was their responsibility to organize the event. But it had not been done for many years, the last time was when Jake Thomas conducted the recital at Six Nations.

Most Confederacy Chiefs and Clan Mothers boycotted last years event and would not attend or participate. But the people did, and it was refreshing for many who had not heard the Great Law presented in this way before to hear it.

In the wake of last summer’s recital, the traditional Chiefs of Oneida began organizing this year’s reading, this time with the consent and blessing of the Confederacy Chiefs and Clan Mothers.

“I think what people may have missed out on was the feelings of unity, respect, and comradery during the gathering of the Haudenosaunee Nations,” said Confederacy Secretary Jock Hill. “Of course, some would say that was a historic gathering so I guess, some missed out on witnessing history.”

The net result, however, was that the Great Law was presented twice in the past two years, which some believe should be continued as a practice every year, just as Peacemaker said it should be done so as to remind the people of the importance of making and keeping peace and as a powerful source informing the people of what it means to be Haudenosaunee, or Onkwehon:we.
Tehakanale, for one, would welcome an annual recital.

“It is my observation that perhaps people are seeing that, this is our constitution, it is our way and it is a way that could be really beneficial to humanity at large,” he says.

So much more than listening to the words, the gathering under the Great Law also had great value in the social times after the day’s recital ended. People talked amongst themselves about what they had heard and how it fits into their own lives and that of their communities.

Two Row Times publisher Jonathan Garlow also attended and was also moved by the unity and the sense of identity that permeated the grounds.
“There was a real sense of community,” said Garlow. “It was fresh, current and very relevant and applicable now.”

It was pointed out that the Great Law is a conflict resolution process that can equally be used to resolve conflict between people, not just Nations.

“The Great Law is still relevant today because it is still necessary to have leaders, and also we need reminders and guidance to practice the teachings of being “Good Minded” and at “Peace” at all times, and the “Strength/Power” that being united brings,” says Jock Hill. “All of those ideals are what we strive to achieve and maintain as we go through life. It helps us to realize we need to work together and support our leadership in whatever way we can.”

There was talk of the next reading to take place in Onondaga, NY. Although that hasn’t been confirmed, the need to keep the Great Law recitals going was resolved in principle.

By Jim Windle

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