The greatest leader of the Onyota’aka died last week. There, I said it — the greatest leader. And let there be no mistake, because in a sea of frauds who buy enough votes to be declared “winners” in tribal elections or twist around “customs and traditions” to get placed as “leaders” or, worse yet, use the BIA to get designated the “federally recognized leader,” Jake Thompson’s leadership was real and undeniable.
Jake took nothing with him when he completed his journey back to our Mother. However, he left a lifetime of work for all of us to build upon. He set an example for a life well lived.
Jake was not a Royaneh. He never was put up through a condolence ceremony for an Oneida title. He wasn’t a “chief” although he did actually serve as the “president” of the Oneida Nation of New York for a brief stint. The fact of the matter is that Jake wasn’t even Oneida. He was Mohawk from Akwesasne. Jake knew the Longhouse. He knew the Longhouse in both Akwesasne and Onondaga but was not “Longhouse.” And he likely never stepped into an Oneida Longhouse.
His Kaniekeha name was Shakohentetha. It means “he advances his people” and puts the causes and welfare of the people ahead of his own. Jake did exactly what his name suggested.
When I use the word “leader,” which is something I rarely do without at least a hint of sarcasm in my voice, I don’t mean a man who commands a following or who has authority over others. I mean a man who leads by example.
In the Kaianerehkowa it is explained that a man who carries a family title must have proven himself as a husband, a father and an uncle. Jake did all of these to the highest extent and standard. He was a faithful husband, a nurturing and supportive father and a wise and always teaching uncle to far too many to count.
The leadership to which I speak is not just that of a good family man. Jake was an activist. Unlike the role and responsibility of a Royaneh who is placed on a path that is well defined by those that came before us and the will of the people, Jake searched for the path and made one where one was needed but did not yet exist.
In the fight to reclaim Oneida homeland, Jake had to create an entire legal pathway to even get a court to accept the filing. The case he researched and advanced would not only make it to, and persevere, through the U.S. Supreme Court, but it also created the legal corridor for challenges for land reclamation that never existed before.
Notwithstanding the dismal failures of those who use Jake’s good work and squandered or exploited his success, there is no individual who accomplished more on “Indian land claims” than Jacob Thompson.
The work to advance the causes of Native people didn’t stop with land issues. Jake also may have played the most significant role of anyone in advancing the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). While serving as a governor appointee in the State of Massachusetts, Jake drafted letters and lobbied every Congressman in the U.S. House of Representatives and every Senator in the U.S. Senate to approve ICWA. He didn’t stop until it was signed into law.
As an educator, Jake continued his work with children and served as the Administrator for the Syracuse School District’s Native American Program. With a Master’s Degree from Harvard, Jake chose to advance others rather than chase the promise of wealth that most associate with such an education.
Jake and his wife Geralda brought up foster children and took in other children to raise, as their own, in strong opposition to Native kids being adopted out to non-Native families. Their own sons would become well respected among all who would know them with one son serving with distinction as a Syracuse City police officer and another pursuing a medical career as an obstetrician.
Jake was my friend and while we didn’t always agree or find ourselves beginning on the same side of a dispute or philosophical view, we could talk for hours and more often than not agree strongly on our common ground.
Jake did not proclaim himself as a leader. Real ones don’t need to do that. His life is a testament to what is possible. When we say we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, it should be known that many of us are standing on Jake Thompson’s — including those who don’t deserve a spot at his feet.
So as our Mother takes you back into her arms, rest well and be proud of the work you have done. We will carry you with us always.
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