Visit to Ska-nonh, the Great Law of Peace Center

An enthusiastic group of women and men arrived at the site formerly known as Sainte Marie among the Iroquois for a sneak preview of the transformation it is undergoing. Our hosts were Dr. Phil Arnold and his wife, Sandra Bigtree, who are involved in envisioning and creating a new center on this site projected to open in 2015: Ska-nonh, the Great Law of Peace Center.

Dr. Arnold, Associate Professor of Religion and Native American Studies at Syracuse University, is on sabbatical and serves as the director of the center. Onondaga Lake is a sacred place for the Haudenosaunee (“People of the Longhouse”), and the center will highlight the “Great Law of Peace” that has guided the Haudenosaunee for over a thousand years, a protocol of democracy and respect for the land and all its inhabitants.

Dr. Arnold began by giving some background on the Haudenosaunee confederacy. (He noted that “Iroquois,” though widely used, is actually a derogatory designation coined by the French and Jesuits.) The wampum belt flag represents the confederacy of the original five nations. The center diamond represents the Great Tree of Peace and the Onondaga Nation. The other nations are represented by white squares reflecting geographical location: Seneca and Cayuga on the left, Oneida and Mohawk on the right. An open line on each end symbolizes that new nations may join. The Tuscaroras (originally from South Carolina) became the sixth nation in the confederacy in the 1720s. The Onondaga Nation has a special place as the keeper of the central fire. Clanmothers play an important role in preserving traditions, maintaining the longhouse system, and raising leaders within each clan.

Dr. Arnold told the story of the Peacemaker, who brought the five warring nations together over 1000 years ago. This semi-divine being came from Lake Ontario to Onondaga Lake in a white stone canoe. He carried a message of peace among tribes through proper interactions and peace with the environment through caring for the water, land, fish and animals. Haionwhatha (Hiawatha) helped the Peacemaker spread his message to the five nations. Tadodaho, an Onondaga chief so evil he was said to have snakes in his hair, rejected the message; with the help of a woman named Jigonsaseh, they changed his thoughts and he became the 50th Chief. The current Tadodaho is Sid Hill. The Peacemaker uprooted a great white pine tree, and the five nations threw their weapons of war into the hole left in the ground. The replanted tree symbolizes The Great Law of Peace.

The previous museum on this site was named St. Marie Among the Iroquois and depicted the encounter between the Onondaga and the Jesuits from the Jesuit point of view. The Jesuits built forts in the area between 1656 and 1658. A year and a half after their arrival, the Onondaga asked them to leave. A wampum belt indicates a “bad situation” between the French and Onondaga. Jesuits acted under the doctrine of discovery (Papal bulls in the 15th century urging Christians entering non-Christian territories to convert/enslave the people and take the land). The “French Fort” was originally built in 1933 and redesigned over the years. St. Marie Among the Iroquois was officially de-funded by the county in 2011.

In 2012, Prof. Arnold suggested reopening the museum but focusing on a different message – the meaning of the Great Law of Peace and its importance for us all today. Dr. Arnold and Sandra Bigtree stressed that peace fundamentally involves being connected to the Earth and protecting it for future generations. Indigenous peoples around the world share similar peace traditions often disrupted by colonialism. Haudenosaunee traditions have profoundly influenced the United States (democracy in the 18thcentury and women’s rights in the 19th). Onondaga County, SUNY Environmental Science and Forestry, Syracuse University, LeMoyne College, Onondaga Community College and the Onondaga Nation (who will control all content) are engaged in a collaborative planning process.

One proposal is to invite indigenous people from all over the world to come to the center and share their peace traditions. Another is to annually repeat the successful “Wooden Stick” (Lacrosse) Exposition, which took place this September. Sandra Bigtree shared some ideas for the museum space itself. The Onondaga creation story might be depicted counterclockwise in the foyer rising up the stairs. The story involves Sky-woman, who comes to Earth on the back of a Turtle and is helped by water and land creatures of the natural world. The ceiling over the foyer might have a mural of traditional “wooden stick” lacrosse. A replica of a longhouse is planned for upstairs, as well as interactive exhibits highlighting Haudenosaunee traditions.

Questions from the group prompted an extremely interesting discussion about lacrosse (a name given to the game by the French) and its place in Haudenosaunee life and belief. The game was played by the Creator Twins in the Sky-world in the time of the animals. It was given to the Haudenosaunee to help them keep physically and mentally fit; it is a ceremonial game played with wooden sticks. The five nations played against each other on the shores on Onondaga Lake. According to tradition, Iroquois women do not play lacrosse for reasons that have to do with male and female energy and maintaining balance and harmony. The Haudenosaunee have an international lacrosse team that travels on Haudenosaunee (not USA) passports. The Onondaga are one of the very few Native American groups recognized as a separate nation. They have been active in the United Nations on behalf of indigenous peoples.

Questions led to fascinating discussions such as the role of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in governing tribal affairs, the Native American Movement of the 1970s, the Doctrine of Discovery and its effect on US policy toward Native Americans over the years, and a possible role for the new Center in giving young people hands-on experience with the democratic process as practiced by the Haudenosaunee.

A true highlight was viewing a wampum belt that can be interpreted as a text depicting the “bad situation” that led to the Jesuit missionaries’ departure from Onondaga Lake so long ago.

Dr. Arnold and Sandra Bigtree then invited us to tour the upstairs space. Lively and informative exchanges around the “old” exhibits lasted well past the official ending time.