SIX NATIONS — A few years ago, when Onondaga Beaver Clan Royáner Arnie General’s health began to fail him, this reporter had opportunity to record interviews with him about his life, his beliefs and the future of his people. He understood at the time that this information would be published but held until after he passed on to the ancestors. He agreed.
The following are excerpts from our recorded conversations:
TRT: How is Six Nations of the Grand River different from the one you grew up in?
Royáner General: Growing up, I thought the rez was beautiful. It was serene, it was quiet. There was no rough stuff, nobody going around robbing people and that. We lived and worked on a farm and did a lot of hunting and trapping. There was an abundance of wild game in the area and lots of fish in the crick. They were good eatable fish too. We could just drink water out of the crick and not worry about it. It wasn’t like what it is now.
I’d hunt deer or shoot a rabbit or a partridge and sometimes I’d catch some fish. I even got them in wintertime. There was a stream down at McKenzie Creek where we used to fish. The stream had fast running water and I could see the fish under the ice. I managed to get one out and take it home. That’s how we survived. Even today, if we think things get really bad, I know I could survive. I had to do what I had to do, and that was it. We didn’t think we were poor at all. I’d hunt deer or shoot a rabbit or a partridge and sometimes I’d catch some fish. I managed to get one out and take it home. That’s how we survived. I had to do what I had to do, and that was it.
I’ve been to the east coast. I’ve been to the west coast. I was in Germany, and I found the German people very friendly. They had great respect of us Indian people. When I’d walk down the street, they’d stand aside and let me pass first. All in all, I’ve had a good life. I can’t complain. After my mother died, my stepfather raised me for a while and I stayed with him for about four years. Then I went to live with my grandmother.
TRT: How were your teen years?
Royáner General: In my early teens I had to go off reserve to find work. I had to go to work because I lived with my grandmother and when she went off reserve every summer to work I’d go with her. That’s why I only got a grade five formal education.
I would go and get work in the spring of the year. I got out of school and went to find work. We didn’t have very much money. There was no work around here so I told my grandmother, I’m going to work off reserve. I’d fill a shopping bag with a change of clothes, a cup and a bowl, a plate and a knife, spoon and fork. In the winter time, she must have hid some money away somewhere because we always had money for food. I don’t know how she did it but every time we needed to buy something she found the money. My grandmother was very smart. She couldn’t read or write, couldn’t speak English worth a damn, but by God she could put a meal on.
TRT: Did you go to residential school?
Royáner General: No. I missed all that.
Royáner General: me to Chapleau so I would be too far away and I wouldn’t run away. When we heard the Mounties were coming down to the reserve I hid. When I’d hear the Mounties car coming down the road my grandmother would send me out behind the house and say I wasn’t home, and they didn’t want to go back there into the bush.
TRT: Were you interested in your spiritual life in those days?
Royáner General: I was so lucky to have sat and listened to the old Chiefs and elders. My grandmother was a clan mother and they’d come over to the house for meetings and stuff. I used to watch how they handled themselves, and how they spoke. I went to ceremonies and always had a sense of who I was. That’s not saying I was a goody-goody. I was still drinking at that time and getting into trouble.
TRT: Before you became a chief, were you politically active at all?
Royáner General: During the 1959 take over of the elected system, at the council house, I was on the reserve police. I felt like I was doing something right and important.
TRT: When and how did you get stood up as a Chief?
Royáner General: About 50-years ago, maybe a bit more, my grandmother’s chief died, his name was Eli Yellow. The other chiefs from the Onondaga Nation came down to the house one day. I just got home and the Chiefs and I wondered what they were doing. They came in and said to my grandmother that the chief’s seat is getting cold, what are you going to do about it? Do you have somebody to put in there. She said yes, and there he sits, pointing at me. I looked on one side and then the other and said, what? Me?
I said wait, wait. I’m not ready. One of the Chiefs looked over at me and said, shut up. When your grandmother talks you shut up. That’s it and that’s the law. Most of the old guys I have learned from have passed on. All the old chiefs I talked with them and we discussed political matters, and how we can’t seem to get through to governments to listen to us. Even back then, they were constantly chipping away at our rights, and its pretty well the same fight we are fighting today.
TRT: What are your thoughts about how the government sees the tobacco trade here.
Royáner General: We have people working at these cigarette shops. They are making cigarettes on the reserve and selling them on the reserve. People have a choice to either buy smokes on or off reserve. Why are they depriving people from buying on reserve, which would help our economy, and they are providing some of our people who are working there with food, clothing, shelter and a livelihood. This attack on our rights is depriving our people of the right to a decent life. The government is saying you can’t do that. If you take all those people who are working in those smoke shops and factories and put them on welfare, what would the government say then? We’d be blamed for being lazy and not working.
I can’t understand why the government is depriving us of work, and then if we go on welfare we get criticized.
If anyone is breaking the law, it’s the non-Natives who come here to buy cigarettes and not pay tax. Not us.
TRT: What would your message to the next generation be?
Royáner General: Be honest and work hard. Stay out of trouble. And look after the elders. As you get older, you get weaker. And when you get weaker, you can’t do anything as well as you used to when you were young. The elders need help. But the main thing in life is not to forget who you are.