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.