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Book review: Dr. Oronhyatekha: Security, Justice and Equality

Book review: Dr. Oronhyatekha: Security, Justice and Equality

Review by Jim Ward Oronhyatekha was a key and controversial aboriginal figure in 19th Century Canada. He was connected with important people both in the aboriginal and non-aboriginal worlds. He was born in 1841 on the Six Nations Reserve, a time before there was such an entity as the nation of Canada. As a child

Review by Jim Ward

Oronhyatekha was a key and controversial aboriginal figure in 19th Century Canada. He was connected with important people both in the aboriginal and non-aboriginal worlds.

He was born in 1841 on the Six Nations Reserve, a time before there was such an entity as the nation of Canada. As a child he attended the Mohawk residential school and learned the skills of a shoemaker. Those close to him recognized his high level of communication skills and, at the age of 20, he was recruited to give the welcoming address to the visiting Prince of Wales. This led to his connection with influential people in Britain and to an invitation to study at the University of Oxford. His early high status in both the aboriginal and colonial communities led to conflicting views of whether he really was an aboriginal leader, a sycophant to the British colonialists, or someone who could effectively straddle the fence between the two worlds.

This new biography of Oronhyatekha is exhaustively researched and written by Keith Jamieson and Michele Hamilton. One of the most fascinating aspects of the Oronhyatekha story is how this larger-than-life character has been all but forgotten. This is the case in both the aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities.

There are exceptions, for example, an historical plaque in the northeast corner of Allen Gardens, in downtown Toronto celebrates some of the man’s achievements. And the east wall of Miziwe Biik Aboriginal Employment and Training centre, on Gerrard Street East, just south of Allen Gardens, in downtown Toronto features a large mural depicting Oronhyatekha’s life and achievements. This remarkable mural is the work of Joseph Sagaj a well-known and respected artist from the Neskantaga first nation, on the shores of  Attawapiskat Lake, 60 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont.

Oronhyatekha was a unique individual, as the following points demonstrate:

 

– He gave the welcoming speech to the Prince of Wales on his visit to the Six Nations Reserve in Southern Ontario.

– He boasted that he had the biggest head in North America (an important characteristic in the mid 19th century when phrenology was in vogue and a big head meant a big brain and, therefore, great intelligence).

– He was the first non-white member of the International Order of Foresters (as the leader of this organization he built the membership up from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands, in countries around the world).

– He was brains behind the building of the first skyscraper in Toronto (the IOF ‘temple’ at the corner of Richmond and Bay streets in downtown Toronto that was demolished in the 1950s).

– His was one of the loudest voices to demand (unsuccessfully) the vote for aboriginal people in Canada.

 

Probably the most important aspect of the life and work of this man was that he managed to overcome the barriers of prejudice and discrimination against the members of the aboriginal population in Canada.

His constant use of the Mohawk language and his conviction that it was as important as what became the lingua franca of this piece of geography (English) was a central conviction he held his whole life.

Oronhyatekha’s effectiveness as an aboriginal leader was most apparent in his serving in the role as president of the Grand Council of Canadian Chiefs, and his insistence on speaking in the Mohawk language whenever it was possible. Although he was baptized as Peter Martin, he preferred to be called by his aboriginal name, Oronhyatekha. He also frequently spoke out about the need to stop the oppression of aboriginals and other marginalized peoples in Canada. One of the most frequent quotes from his many speeches was: “I recognized I belonged to a race that is superior to the white.” He married a great granddaughter of Joseph Brant, founder of the Six Nations Reserve.

To an important extent Oronhyatekha was effective in straddling the Aboriginal and British colonial worlds. This was most apparent in his development of a large collection of aboriginal artifacts which was originally brought together and housed on the ground floor of Toronto’s first ‘skyscraper’; the building at the corner of Bay and Richmond Street, in downtown Toronto. This collection is now housed at the ROM in Toronto and Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.. To many, the collection is seen as an attempt to preserve the aboriginal cultures at a time when they were under threat of being totally submerged by the European colonial culture.

Like many individuals who make their mark on history, Oronhyatekha was a complex person at a time when colonial pressures were pressing down hard on aboriginal cultures, ways of life and traditions. In that same vein we could characterize Oronhyatekha as playing any of the three following roles, aboriginal leader, colonial sycophant or someone able to live effectively in both worlds. Jamieson and Hamilton’s conclusion is that he was primarily the former (a tireless promoter of aboriginal rights).

He becomes a particularly important figure at this stage of Canadian History, when aboriginal peoples are clearly staking their claims to be treated as full equals, with all the rights and privileges and opportunities of those who came after them.

This book is must reading for anyone interested in the recent and not-so-recent history of the aboriginal fight for real equal rights and respect from the majority non-aboriginal population.

With their detailed biography of this giant of Canadian history, Jamieson and Hamilton have done an enormous favour both for aboriginals and non-aboriginals living on this piece of geography currently known as Canada.

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