"A Few Years of History":
Onondaga Land Rights Series Looks to the Past

by Ellen Edgerton

"We're going to cover a few years of history,"
Chief Irving Powless, Jr. (bottom center) invited other Haudenosaunee people to join him onstage at the end of his presentation with Robert W. Venables. Photo: Kent Lyons

joked Onondaga Chief Irving Powless Jr. to an audience of about 350 gathered at Syracuse Stage on April 11. He and Robert W. Venables, author and senior lecturer in Cornell University's American Indian Studies Program, took on the daunting task of compressing centuries of European, US and Native American relations into an enlightening and emotional presentation. Theirs was the third presentation in the year-long educational series "Onondaga Land Rights and Our Common Future."

Powless, who is a member of the Onondaga Nation Beaver Clan and has been an Onondaga leader for more than 35 years, began the evening by recounting the first meeting between himself and Venables over three decades ago. He admitted that initially the two of them disagreed over the true details of the Haudenosaunee-European historical relationship, a history which in Haudenosaunee culture has been passed down through oral tradition not recognized by the educational establishment.

Venables said that his initial meetings with Powless challenged his world view, and changed what he thought he knew about early European history in North America. In his search for confirmation of the oral history he had learned from Powless, Venables examined previously ignored British documents on their dealing with Native Americans in the colonies. After two centuries, Venables was the first scholar to seek and find confirmation of Haudenosaunee oral history in 18th-century European accounts.

"If we haven't read these papers, what else haven't we read?" Venables asked. He noted that in European and American courts, "oral testimony doesn't count unless backed up with documentary evidence - written by white people. But there has always been a minority of white people who understand what is right rather than what is expedient." Venables listed crucial dates in the history of Haudenosaunee-European relations: from1142 - the founding of the Haudenosaunee confederacy; to 1524 - the arrival of smallpox in Haudenosaunee territory (brought to the New World by Spanish conquistadors); to 1613 - the first major peace treaty between the Haudenosaunee and Europeans, the Two Row Wampum agreement with the Dutch settlers of the Hudson and Mohawk Valleys.

Powless described how Mohawks, guardians of the Haudenosaunee confederacy's eastern door, observed the arrival of the Dutch settlers, and reported back to the other Haudenosaunee nations. "We wondered who they were and what they were doing in our house," he said. "But we laid down conditions: we agreed that we would co-exist and respect each other as people" - not as "father and son," as the Dutch proposed, but as "brothers." Powless held up a copy of the Two Row Wampum that the Haudenosaunee created to record the agreement, and explained the belt's symbolism and significance. The agreement was meant to last forever, Powless said, "as long as the grass is green, and the sun rises in the east and sets in the west - as it still does this evening."

Following the Two Row Wampum Treaty, other significant treaties followed, including the Covenant Chain Friendship Treaty with the British in 1677, and the Fort Stanwix Treaty of 1768 which fixed the western boundary of New York State at Rome to, in the words of colonial leaders, "preserve peace with the native people." Venables discussed the stresses on Native American culture brought about by the European settlers' desire for furs and other natural resources, which forced the various native peoples into wartime alliances with different European powers. Moving on to the American Revolution, Venables called particular attention to the most tragic date in Onondaga history - April 20, 1779, when American Col. Goose Van Schaick led a brutal attack against Onondaga villages. Later that summer, Haudenosaunee nations further west were deliberately driven from their lands during the Sullivan-Clinton Expedition. Powless noted that since that year, all presidents of the United States have carried the name Honedagyus, or "Town Destroyer," among the Haudenosaunee, even
after the Treaty of Canandaigua between the Haudenosaunee and the United States was signed in 1794. This treaty affirmed Haudenosaunee land rights in New York State.

In a powerful close to the evening, Powless asked Haudenosaunee people in the audience to join him onstage, while asking everyone else to crowd into the front four rows of the auditorium. He wanted to give the non-Haudenosaunee in the audience a glimmer of understanding of what it was like for the Haudenosaunee to be confined to small reservations and pressured to give up their language and culture. He also reminded the audience that they could learn valuable modern lessons from history, citing local eminent domain cases and the current controversy over immigration. He drew a parallel between the past lack of respect for Haudenosaunee treaties and possible future erosion of the US Constitution.

"They say our treaties [with the US] are 200 years old. So is the Constitution," Powless warned the audience. "If they throw that away, you're going to be in trouble."


Ellen is a communications assistant at Syracuse University and a member of Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation (NOON).