No Honor Among Chiefs or Thieves

I have to begin my column this week by stating up front that I am Haudenosaunee. I support traditional governance based on the Kaianerehkowa and a culture grounded with the Ohenton Karihwatehkwen (Words Before All Else) and the Tiohateh (the Two Row Wampum). I must emphasize that it is traditional governance I support rather than “traditional government.”

There are those who would suggest that the Haudenosaunee have existed with all these things firmly in place in an unbroken testament to our strength and durability as a people. I wish that were true. I wish our people had continued to reject the Bible and the booze. I wish they always held our women in the reverence that we like to claim. I wish we protected and preserved our lands and language for our future generations. I wish we maintained the concepts of governance by the people and the understanding that people who were recognized for the best characteristics were placed as honorable servants to their people rather than rulers placed above them. But most of these wishes would bring me back several hundred years.

We lost our way several times long before the first white man ever appeared before us. Our Thanksgivings are reminders of those times and of the time we came back together to right ourselves. The Kaianerehkowa represents the last time wise men among us reminded us who we were and what we were created for. In it are the descriptions of the characteristics we were to strive for. No, it didn’t say don’t drink, gamble or dance. It placed honor on a man who proved himself as a husband, a father and an uncle. What that means should be self-evident. The Kaianerehkowa lays out the process to maintain peace and resolve conflicts. It lays out checks and balances and defies any notion that any of us have authority or higher standing than any others. of us. It also made clear that all those things that went into the Kaianerehkowa should be retold and recited each year in every Haudenosaunee community and recited at a gathering of all 49 families of the Haudenosaunee and any new families that joined to enjoy the peace under the Kaianerehkowa every five years.

This basic call for maintenance through constant education and “removal of the dust” that accumulates with time surely could have prevented where we now find ourselves. This summer such an event is planned for the Seneca community of Tonawanda and at this point there may be no community in more need. But Tonawanda is certainly not the only community in need. Between assimilated elected councils with pitiful voter turnout and no connection to our culture or what defines us, and councils of “chiefs” that claim to be “traditional” with a twisted view of their authority or privilege, our communities are barely recognizable as Haudenosaunee.

I have seen unspeakable corruption and behavior out of men claiming to be chiefs while loyalists chant “honor the chiefs.” As these men hide behind the banner of being “traditional” they discriminate against some and disregard others while consolidating power, wealth and recognition as royal families.

I could review much of the fairly recent ugly history that would explain the mess that is now the Oneida Nation of New York and the current power struggle over leadership, control and federal recognition in Cayuga that involves “traditional” chiefs, their lawyers and reliance on the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Our ways? The Kaianerehkowa? Certainly not! But one of the most blatant abuses of power today by those that claim to be “traditional” is, indeed, in Tonawanda.

Tonawanda is a small Seneca community that claims to be “traditional.” The resident population is less than 500 with half of those being non-Native and the majority of the Native population being non-Tonawanda Seneca, meaning only about 20-25 percent of the residents are “enrolled” Tonawanda Seneca. There is a relatively sizeable Christian population with notables that have historically included men like Ely Parker who actually served as a chief on the Tonawanda Chiefs Council. While there is one modest Longhouse and quite nice tribal offices, there is also a sizeable church within the community as well as churches attended by residents off-territory. The contemporary notion that Tonawanda is a “traditional” community has drawn deep lines separating people along family lines, occupations, religious beliefs and even gender. There exists a sense of superiority for these ‘traditional” leaders and their loyal followers over the vast majority of the rest of the residents.

None of this could be more exemplified than by the current situation where a Tonawanda Seneca business owner, out of favor with the “chiefs,” dies and despite a well documented will that clearly laid out his intent to leave certain significant assets to his Tonawanda Seneca daughter, has those intentions usurped by the deceased’s greedy brother, mother and, at least, certain Tonawanda chiefs. Literally, the uncle and grandmother conspired to defraud a young woman out of her inheritance from her father and ultimately they are assisted by corrupt chiefs to pull it off. As it stands today, both the home, valued at over $3 million, and the businesses that have generated significant wealth over the years, have been seized by the chiefs and it is being done under some guise of “traditional” law or custom. The plain and simple truth is that the daughter of the deceased has been determined arbitrarily as undeserving of the inheritance and that is cause enough for a corrupt and dysfunctional “government” to do as it likes against whomever it wishes.

There is nothing in any legitimate or noble culture, traditional or otherwise, that would deny a man the right to leave his daughter assets that she would otherwise have the right to own or receive. And there is nothing in the Kaianerehkowa that would remotely suggest or empower a chief to seize an inheritance. This case is simply a theft by those that believe they are above the people and what is decent and right.

It will be a singular moment of reckoning when men guilty of such a crime have to sit before all of us at a Kaianerehkowa recital knowing the abuse they have inflicted even as that very abuse is being condemned before all. I will sit in anxious anticipation of those days with only one hope – that they will reflect on their actions and correct them before we all come together.

Related Posts


  1. THANK YOU! Someone finally has taken up the fight for our daughters. David left his mother and his brother, (also our daughters god father) very well provided for. But they wanted everything. And the Chiefs…don’t get me started on that bunch. Does anyone really believe that they would have become involved if David had no money, or didn’t have a successful business?? I think not!

  2. John – my understanding is that the land that the smokeshop is on belongs to the grandmother. Does that make any difference? Just curious. The whole thing is unfortunate.

    1. Although there are questions as to whether Dave owned the land or if his mother did, There is no question that Coreen was to have a stake in the business that Dave built and owned. The greed displayed by his brother and mother to deny that is obvious. The fact of the matter is that now both the house that Dave left to his daughter and the business are now being claimed by the chiefs. What payment or compensation Coreen’s uncle and grandmother have negotiated at Coreen’s expense is shrouded in as much secrecy as everything else that these chiefs do.

  3. No big brush here. If the shoe fits, well, you know. I certainly am not claiming that all those who claim to be traditional are frauds but since the word means different things to different people then IT is the broad brush. My issue is simple: it is wrong for those that claim to be Haudenosaunee leaders to purport “traditional ways” as a means to screw people, especially if those “ways” violate the Kaianerehkowa.

  4. I have personal knowledge of these things to be very true. The tribal govt. has caused the takeover of my Mothers estate. I now have claims filed in the federal district court against the congressional tribal govt., the council, the BIA, and the state county judge. The county court has jurisdiction of probate but not over any civil matter pertaining to the estate. The jurisdiction is that of the federal court and that is my only hope for any type of justice. The state or something is allegedly not allowing any counsel to represent me so I am pro se. The importance of this case cannot be overstated. I am hoping to change things around for my people so that we might possibly have those rights guaranteed to us by the treaties and the U.S. Constitution that involve the rights to water, to our land, the rights in our land and in our person. This is difficult without any counsel but it was even more difficult with counsel that was there to help the opposing side. I will do the best I can to help all the people and hope that my best is enough. Thank you John Kane for bringing this root to the problem of our Nations to the forefront. You see we are working against several factions ,that combined, form as a friend has called it, the”Nature of the Beast”.

Comments are closed.