The Haudenosaunee | Part Three, That Which Divides Us

The history of the Haudenosaunee (the people who are building a longhouse) is one of unceasing challenges, from without but often also from within. It was no foregone conclusion that the eventual five constituting nations of the “Iroquois League” would accede to the Peacemaker’s vision of unity. Suspicion and hostility posed an enormous impediment to the cause of peace. The impediment obtains to this day.

Haudenosaunee unity, once achieved, was soon tested with the arrival of Europeans. The initial phase of contact was characterized by treaty and trade, but with time the Five Nations (and in the early 1700s, with the entry of the Tuscarora, the Six Nations) were confronted by English-French rivalry and the consequent necessity of choosing sides. Such was the case also during the American wars of independence, and as one might expect the external pressures fragmented the Haudenosaunee, some (for instance Joseph Brant) siding with the British and others with the revolutionaries. These European wars were long, brutal, and traumatizing, and we live today with their legacies. It was the alliance between Joseph Brant and the British during the American Revolution which yielded the Haldimand Tract and the settlement of the Six Nations of the Grand River. Ninety-five percent of the land in that provision was eventually appropriated, sold off, and otherwise acquired by the Crown. To this day, the Six Nations people seek redress for land that was taken and sold, the money used by Canada to build universities (among them McGill), government buildings, and other infrastructure.

By the end of the eighteenth century, many Haudenosaunee had absorbed bits of European culture, in some cases quite substantial bits. A man named Handsome Lake formally introduced Christianity into the mix of Six Nations life, introducing a major schism, between the Longhouse People and the Handsome Lake people. Such were the principal factions until the twentieth century, when the business of division achieved its golden age. In 1924, the Government of Canada sent the RCMP into Six Nations to impose by force the Chief and Council system, a municipal-styled governing body which answers to the Minister of Indian Affairs and whose powers are subject to the Federal Indian Act. The “traditional” government, whose authority derived from the Clan Mothers, opposed this criminal action against Haudenosaunee autonomy and protested tirelessly, but to little result. The Chief and Council took root, with Federal Government help and patronage, alongside the Longhouse. Canada, of course, chose to deal only with the latter.

You might think that was quite enough by way of Balkanization: British Loyalists, American Indians, Christian Indians, traditional government, and band council government. Yet there are further factions, or perhaps sub-factions. We today have an abundant vocabulary concerning this subject, the terms of which include “Long Hairs,” “Short Hairs,” “Handsome Lake,” “Traditionalists,” “Longhouse,” “On Reserve,” “Off Reserve,” and so on and so on. There are those who consider the band council and chief the authentic and legitimate representatives of the people, and those who consider only the forty-nine condoled Royaner and the Tadodaho as such. There are those much more interested in the making of money, the “short hairs” who advocate “Ec-Dev” (economic development) as the Way Out. And of course, as in any group, there is Everyone Else: those who — thank you very much — merely wish to get by as best they can.

All of this raises the at-present impossible question: Who speaks for the Haudenosaunee? Everyone, and no one, it appears. While this mess is in no way a recent development, there are manifestations of it as fresh as the produce on your local bakery’s shelves. Only this morning I read a news report concerning proposed talks between Brantford Mayor Chris Friel and the Six Nations band council. Matters rather took a predictable unpredictable turn when a number of Longhouse people objected to this exclusive dialogue on the future of the community. The question at the head of this paragraph is for me indescribably depressing, because it appears at this time unresolvable and is a guarantee of future ill-will, conflict, and even physical violence. I have very little hope for the near future, and less as the prospect attenuates.

When the need to do so arises, I’ve made it clear that I speak only for myself. I wish more of the “spokespersons” around the ball would do the same. In my opinion, there ought to be no cutting of deals until the business of “voice” is addressed. By this I mean there needs to be a hearing, in the literal sense of that word and in the most broad and capacious manner achievable. I’m on the side of anyone who promotes dialogue, but for goodness sake let’s not have a backroom dialogue among a half-dozen spokespersons whose credibility is in any case disputed. A tall order, I know — but consider: we’ve been quite sat upon for many decades, and the divide and conquer nastiness has made a shambles of things. The only way out of the current mess is to accept the logical conclusion of this, that the tough ground work of cultivating unity and oneness of purpose must be revisited, and to proceed accordingly.

Next in the series: Part Four, Some Present Realities.

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