The Warrior Spirit of the Grand River: Chief Jake Thomas Renowned teacher and information warrior

To be a Warrior, means many things to many people. This week we look at the life of what some call, an information warrior. A man who dedicated his life to the preservation of the ancient ways and languages of the Six Nations.

On August 17th, 1998, one of Six Nations’ greatest modern treasures passed on to the bosom of the Great Spirit to join the ancestors. Born Hadajigre:ta’ (Desending-Cloud) aka Jacob Ezra Thomas in 1922, he was better known as Cayuga Chief, Jake Thomas.

Although not a scholar in the European sense of the word, he was most certainly a master teacher and educator who was one of the first Indigenous persons to earn a tenure positions as a university professor in Canada, and instructed at Trent University for 14 years, based not on the diplomas on his wall, but rather on his “great wealth of traditional knowledge.”

Trent University’s Native Studies department thrived under his care. Central to his heart was the preservation of the foundational stone of his people, the Haudenosaunee, known as “the Great Law or The Great Peace.” He believed the intended understanding of their traditions and past history can not be fully understood without understanding the language first. During his 50-years as a condoled Cayuga chief representing the Sandpiper Clan, Thomas noticed a real and present danger of loosing the traditional languages of the Confederacy.

Residential schools had already been doing their work by “removing the Indian from the Boy,” as they proudly bragged. One of the first orders of business when an innocent young Native child entered the foreboding oak doors of the Mohawk Institute, they were not expected to be who they were when they left. Language was the first thing to go. Anyone caught speaking their own language were dealt with very severely. We are told by former “students” of the school that repeat offenders were sometimes impaled through the tongue with a hatpin for a time as a reminder to others not to speak in “the devil’s tongue.”

He noted that older members of the community were dying they were not leaving their language behind because of it being stollen from most.

At the time Thomas was the only known Six Nations man capable of reciting the Great Peace of the Iroquois Confederacy. In ages past, the recital of the epic story of the creation of the Five Nations Confederacy was to be conducted annually in a community wide setting as a yearly reminder of who they were and they came from as the passing down of traditions and knowledge.

Thomas was far more than a traditional language speaker, he had many other talents which he used throughout his life to promote the traditions and history of his people. He was also a fine carver and artist, maker of replica wampum belts, traditional singer, and historian.

In early summer, 1994, over a 12 day period, Chief Thomas gave a public recital of the Great Law, an event that was recorded on videotape and archived by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.

“That peace is supposed to work,” Thomas told a Royal Commission hearing. “It’s the power of the words of the Creator where they came from, of unity, being of one mind, a good mind. That’s what makes power.”

It is said that Jake Thomas lived his culture, “teaching Six Nations youngsters about nature in his sugar bush behind his home, or carving hickory condolence canes used in the longhouse at the installation of a new chief, upon the death of his predecessor.”

Author His teaching will not end as long as visitors tour the Jake Thomas Learning Centre at Six Nations, or Trent University continues to incorporate into its annual convocation ceremonies the condolence cane he presented to the Native Studies program on the occasion of its 25th anniversary. “We release you for we know it is no longer possible for you to walk together with us on earth.” (Wampum, The Great Law)

Sometimes his zeal and commitment to his work got Chief Thomas into opposition to his fellow Longhouse chiefs who had neglected the annual recital for decades.

After several attempts to prod his fellow chiefs into correcting that error, he decided to go outside the longhouse to conduct a public recital bypassing the Confederacy Council who believed a recital could only happen at the longhouse and under their auspices.

After much consideration, he felt the need to be proactive and went ahead to not only do a full 12-day recital, but to record it for future generations. Those recordings are still available at the Jake Thomas Learning Centre, still run by his partner and wife, Yvonne Thomas, along with reams of written materials outlining her husband’s life and works.

The Jake Thomas Learning Centre continues its purpose by educating both Indigenous and non-Native students of all ages with the Teachings of the Longhouse.

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