The Two Row Times is pleased to present a 4 part series on Haudenosaunee diversity by Rick Hill, Senior Project Coordinator at Deyohahá:ge: Indigenous Knowledge Centre

Haudenosaunee Diversity – Part One

There has been much speculation over the years about having our own university. The thought is that we can educate ourselves on how to best be ourselves, according to our own laws, traditions and beliefs. There was an expressed need to restore what used to be called Ongweonweka – the way of life of the Original People. The question quickly arose: Who is eligible to attend such a university? Is our way of life for anyone or just a few?

There was a working group looking into creating a Haudenosaunee University, however, they fell into two camps of thought and could never resolve their differences. One camp wanted a full-fledged university, granting degrees in a variety of disciplines, just like any other university. They sought parity with the outside world. This kind of Haudenosaunee University would be open to all people, because the world needs more Indigenous thought and philosophy so humans would not destroy the sacred creation.

The other camp wanted all instruction to be in our native languages, with a goal of building a fully-functional Haudenosaunee individual. You had to be able to speak your heritage language first in order to attend. That narrowed the potential student base dramatically. It also raised the question of who qualifies for being Haudenosaunee. At one point it was said that if you do not speak your mother language, you cannot be truly Ongweonwe, because the culture is encoded in the language. That left most of the people out. The discussions about Haudenosaunee University came to an end.

Do we believe in university or diversity? “University” is derived from the Latin universitas magistrorum et scholarium, which roughly means “community of teachers and scholars.” The original Latin word “universitas” refers in general to “a number of persons associated into one body, a society, company, community, guild, corporation, etc.” However, for many centuries, that meant teaching about the universe through Greco-Roman eyes. Most schools are set up to advance Western notions of civilization. Their underlying goal is to make productive citizens of their society, not ours.

Our tradition and history has shown that to truly be Haudenosaunee meant to embrace diversity. The great dictionary in the sky – Wikipedia – defines diversity: “In sociology and political studies, the term diversity is used to describe political entities with members who have identifiable differences in their cultural backgrounds or lifestyles.”

We have become confused over our identifiable differences as to what constitutes being Haudenosaunee. In some ways, our tradition defines a way of life, a way of thinking and speaking that is the prerequisite for being Haudenosaunee. In fact that term was not used until after the Peacemaker created our Confederacy and instructed us to thereafter refer to ourselves as Haudenosaunee. So our identity has been evolving through time. It is a definition that has been undermined by our colonization. Most of us now live a very different lifestyle from our ancestors. Most of us think in English. Most of us are confused about our identity. Are we no longer Haudenosaunee because we went to residential school? Are we no longer Haudenosaunee because we earn a paycheck rather than plant corn or harvest from nature? Are we no longer Haudenosaunee because DNA has changed because of the origin of some of our relatives?

As a young man I repeatedly heard a harsh reality expressed by Longhouse people. Imagine there is a circle known as our ancestral culture. We (those with a clan lineage) are born within that circle, but our thoughts, words and actions can put us outside of that circle. The language you speak, who you marry, how you make a living, what you believe, or what your politics are can ostracize you from your family, clan or nation. We have free will to make the choices we want, but there are consequences for us and our children, based upon what we decide. I have spent my while adult life wondering whether I’m inside or outside of that imaginary circle.

As children of colonized and residential ‘school-ized’ people, we did not have a choice about the kind of world we were born into. Some of my relatives were taken from their families when they were young, adopted out or left behind. And, because of colonization, we were born into a world of confusion, with was a great diversity of opinions about what it meant to be Native surrounded by non-Natives. We have to admit that by the time I was born in 1950, we were a fractured and diverse people.

Since moving to Grand River, I have heard a lot about the government removal of the Confederacy Chiefs in 1924 and the desire to return to that form of government. My own great-grandfather was part of that old system. However, I have since learned that many of those old Chiefs were also Christians and governed with Christian ideologies, more so than the old way of life.

In 1902, the Confederacy opened Number 2 School and stated that the purpose of the school was “the means of bringing them [our children] out of the dark recesses of ignorance into the sunshine of education, industry, honesty, sobriety, and a charitable Christian life.”

Is that the vision we want to restore by returning to that kind of government we had in 1924? For some, yes. My grandparents and some of my aunts and uncles were very devout Christians, and they would certainly support what the Chiefs said in 1902.

I had to learn to accept the diversity of thought among my own extended family. I could not be mad at my grandmother, blaming her for five hundred years of oppression brought on by Christians. Even though I was the first in my family wanting to recover traditionality in my life, I had to accept that for my grandmother and other relatives, Christianity provided spiritual fulfillment. I had to accept that kind of diversity was now entrenched in our community, and respect their choices they made, even though they were different from mine. Besides, they did not ostracize me for what I believed.

I also had to understand that there is no one Christian personality, that there are a great diversity of expressions as to what it means to be a Christian across the territory of the Haudenosaunee.

Once someone said there were sixteen different denominations here at Grand River, all reading the same bible, but interpreting its meaning in different ways. It is also true that there are divergent interpretations of what it means to be Haudenosaunee. There are divergent interpretations of what constitutes the Great Law. Even our respected elders disagree on these matters. It can be confusing to try to figure out what or who to believe. You could say that we are already a very diverse community, with many views of what is means to be us!

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