Onondaga Women

Danya Wellmon introduced our speakers from the Onondaga Nation (left to right): Audrey Shenandoah, clan mother and internationally known speaker; her daughter, Jeanne Shenandoah, a midwife and speaker; and Wendy Gonyea, a faith keeper.

Jeanne Shenandoah began by explaining that she lives south of Syracuse on Onondaga Nation land, a small part of the Nation’s original territory in central New York. The Onondagas are one of the six Indigenous Nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Jeanne is a member of one of the nine clan families that trace their membership through the matrilineal line. Because her mother is Eel Clan, Jeanne is also. The Onondaga Nation is a small community, so all members know one another and many are related. They have a traditional leadership structure, with heads of clans holding lifetime positions of responsibility. Leaders have political, spiritual and social duties, keeping order and leading ceremonies. They constantly strive to maintain the community’s sense of “who we are,” which includes helping the children learn the ways of their people in the face of social pressures from the outside world, including television.

Jeanne said that native people struggle to build a strong spiritual foundation. They hold ceremonies of thanksgiving year-round, always including children, who learn to be thankful and who see that the community itself is thankful for their presence. Prophecies and teachings from the past help the community face and solve difficult situations as they arise.

Jeanne said that both she and Wendy work for the Council of Chiefs and are used to answering questions. Outsiders frequently ask about the legal land-rights action that the Onondaga Nation has undertaken. She explained that the Onondagas are seeking recognition of indigenous peoples’ claim to aboriginal lands and their concern for areas of environmental degradation. The Onondaga Nation’s legal action is not a land claim; rather, it seeks to establish the Nation’s right to be consulted about land that was taken either illegally or by trickery from people who could neither read nor understand English. Onondaga lands used to extend from the Thousand Islands to the Pennsylvania border, and small communities within this area have come to the Onondagas when the state and federal governments have refused to listen to their environmental concerns. The Onondaga Nation is attempting to be recognized as an authentic voice, bringing everyone’s attention to problems of toxic dumps and river pollution. A main focus is Onondaga Lake; the Nation wants the water and the land around it cleaned properly for the health and well-being of all people.

Wendy Gonyea is a member of the Beaver Clan and the mother of four children. She said that the Onondaga Nation faces many issues, and its leaders are involved with environmental degradation and the education of their own people as well as their neighbors. The land-rights action is part of this process. She stressed that the Onondagas have always been here and have not left, as some school textbooks seem to indicate. They are carrying on with who they are and with what their ancestors have left for them.

Before the Onondaga speakers were introduced, WTB members had quickly voted on and passed five amendments to our constitutional by-laws. Wendy found that speedy process interesting, because a similar concern before the Onondaga Nation leadership would have involved discussion, listening, and eventual consensus. The nine clans are split into two houses, with specific governing responsibilities for each house. She added that women are given great respect, and they have considerable strength when they are together.

Audrey Shenandoah greeted the audience with “Nyawenha Skanonh,” a traditional greeting that means, “I am thankful you are well when we meet.” She stressed that thankfulness is vital to the Onondaga way of life. Referring to today’s rainy weather, she said it would not be the Onondagas’ way to say that this is not a good day; the Onondagas are thankful for all days. Similarly, it is important to always acknowledge people and never ignore those you encounter. A schoolteacher for 30 years, Audrey is finding it increasingly difficult to impress on today’s children that all people are important and should be acknowledged, with respect being especially given to elders.

It is a challenge to keep traditions alive. Every Onondaga gathering offers thanksgiving to all of creation. One member of the gathering is selected to give thanks first for the people themselves; then for their mother, the earth, from which all life grows; for four-legged and winged creatures, our brothers; for running water, the lifeblood of the earth and of humanity; for woodlands and trees; for the sky world; for our elder brother, the sun; for the thunder and the rain that freshens and cleanses the air and the earth. It is essential to give thanks for our existence and for the gifts the Creator gives without our asking. People should never gather without words of harmony and peace, sharing love among people and compassion for creation. The Onondagas have days dedicated to each item of creation. They show respect for the arrival of growing things; it is medicine for the soul and the spirit to see the budding of leaves and flowers, or the drip of maple sap, or the forming of strawberries. There is no one “day of worship”; instead there is a consistent giving of thanks.

Seasonal ceremonies frequently extend for six days, during which thanks are given to each item of creation with special songs, dances, foods, and traditional clothing. Other ceremonies, such as those for strawberry or maple syrup season, may last only one or two days. These ceremonies remind us of all we should be learning about the good things in our lives. The faith keepers ensure the perpetuation of spiritual life; they set the dates for ceremonies and allow time for preparation.

The clan mother, the chief, and the male and female faith keepers are the officers of the clan. The faith keepers are chosen of the people of the clan. All leaders must be able to speak their language, perpetuate the traditions and spiritual side, know their history in order to teach it, and be able to take care of a family (the clan becomes their family). The four officers have to work together in a balance; they have a lot of responsibility and a lifetime of work and constant challenges. An elderly officer can choose a helper within the clan. The officers must depend on beliefs handed down by the ancestors, who said that decisions must consider seven generations into the future.

Neither the government of New York State nor that of the United States has any relevance to the Haudenosaunee leaders or their people; the Haudenosaunee are not part of the state or the federal governments and receive no funds or interference from either. The Onondagas have their own jurisdiction, with their own fire department, health clinic, school, and EMTs. Although they do call 911 when necessary, the police need permission to enter Nation land and are usually accompanied by a clan leader. The Onondagas do not count their members and do not participate in the US census. However, fewer than half of the Onondagas live on Nation land; the rest are scattered across the US and the world.

The Onondaga Nation is a sovereign state, not a tourist attraction. It has no visitor center or curio shop. It has no casino, as that would change the society from traditional leadership to a capitalist business, from thanksgiving to consumerism, from common sense to greed, all of which would divorce the people from the Confederacy.

As a sovereign state, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy issues its own passports. Since 1973, it has sent a delegation to the United Nations. The 50-member Council of Chiefs selects a tadodaho, a chief who has special duties to oversee the entire Confederacy. He foregoes his own clan and belongs to all the people of the six nations.

Although history portrays the early Onondagas as warlike, battles were brief though fierce. Instead of military advice, their earliest teachers gave them ways to be thankful. The people were given the peach stone game; outsiders have misinterpreted it as gambling, but it is actually played to enjoy life and the pleasures of one another’s company. Money is not used, but cherished items, such as baskets, clothing or elaborate trinkets, are forfeited, with the understanding that these items will be waiting for the original owner in the Creator’s land. Games can last three days or longer and involve intricate scoring. Audrey, Jeanne and Wendy smiled broadly when discussing the fun of the game, pointing out that Audrey’s and Jeanne’s clan and Wendy’s clan are traditional opponents.

Audrey was asked to be clan mother of the Deer Clan when the clan had no eligible women living on the Nation. The clan mother is known as the woman with a bag at her side. In this bag she keeps the names of deceased clan members. These are names she gives to new babies at a special celebration that includes a formal address held for the name-giving. After the address, all creation acknowledges the name—and thus all creation becomes an ally—so one need not fear storms or four-legged creatures. Special songs and dances accompany this celebration.

Because many Onondagas have been brought up in foreign ways, they have been robbed of the chance to have a special time of receiving names. Children sometimes remind the elders that they need to be given a native name, and adults will travel long distances to come to a naming day to receive a name. When someone dies, the clan mother lifts that person’s name in order to keep it on earth, and she reserves the name for at least one year before giving it again. Occasionally an elderly person will ask to give his or her name to a special new child.

Onondagas are taught how to treat each other, but they suffer the same problems as those outside the Nation. They have no written laws, because laws should be written in their hearts. Outsiders frequently think that the lack of written and posted prohibitions means that there are no standards, and they bring their lawlessness to Onondaga land: junk is dumped, stolen cars are left, crimes are committed. The Onondagas now have their own patrols to protect their people.

Another problem is poor health. The Onondagas’ traditional diet was agricultural, supplemented with fish and wildlife. Many of the fish now swim in polluted waters, and refined, store-bought food contributes to a rising rate of diabetes. To counteract this, the Nation has a small buffalo herd, and many people have gardens and preserve their produce through canning and freezing.

In firm but gentle voices Audrey, Jeanne and Wendy stressed that it is as difficult for them to maintain traditional ways in the face of modern temptations as it is for the rest of us to maintain our values. But their life of respect and thankfulness is worthy of their greatest efforts.