A leader in the service of the people

John Mohawk was a citizen of the Seneca Nation. When introducing himself, he explained that carefully, knowing from years of experience that it was confusing to some: “My name is Mohawk, but I am not Mohawk. My nation is Seneca.”

Invariably, someone new in the meeting or class would address him as “Mr. Seneca” and he would patiently go over the whole thing again. Or, everyone else would laugh, the slow learner would be embarrassed and John would spend a moment dealing with the tinge of humiliation so the person could continue as a functioning part of the group.

That was one of his great skills – putting people and groups back together again after they had been knocked around or ripped apart by the personal failings, disappointments and daily-life things that are at bottom of conflict. He didn’t coddle the bruised ego. He simply didn’t make it worse. He gave individuals and groups a way of standing down and returning to the purpose. He knew how to be with people and how to gently lead everyone back to the topic.

A student of the Great Law of Peace, he drew inspiration and comfort from its clear instructions and values. He tried to conduct himself in keeping with the teachings of his Longhouse religion, with respect for all life. He didn’t just talk about caring for the planet. He tried to do something about it on a personal level. Even in his home in the city of Buffalo, he used corn as his heating fuel.

John was a traditional man who kept up with popular culture. It made me chuckle to hear his analysis of “The Devil Wore Prada” – a movie about a substantive, slightly frumpy young writer struggling to maintain integrity in the cutthroat world of a high fashion magazine – and to know he saw it on opening day.

Over the decades and in several countries, we worked on many projects together, especially writing, researching and developing policy. I valued his keen insights and intellectual acumen. He was at his best and happiest when finding new ways to interpret the past and correct the mistaken histories that have formed public and legal opinion about Native peoples.

He took great pleasure at a new idea or an original way of expressing or framing an old one. His eyes would widen and actually twinkle, and a smile would stretch across his face until he was literally grinning from ear to ear.

If someone made a particularly clever analysis or remark, he would start to laugh. A great laugh, which began in his enormous heart, would rumble up through his being and explode with joy. He took such pleasure in fresh thoughts that he often interrupted his own presentation with that great laugh, which was genuine, catching and delightful.

I didn’t know John when he was a young artist or lacrosse player, with a body as agile as his lightning-fast wit. He always looked to me like his clan, Turtle – strong, deliberate, steady and etched in wisdom. He brought that presence to any space.

He was a gifted storyteller, writer and teacher. His was a fully engaged, creative and brilliant mind and talent, which he used to serve the people. He read and researched for others. He wrote mostly in the name of others. He shared his knowledge and time with those who needed it for the common good.

This is the way he helped to lead and shape the modern Indian world, with love for the people and in service of the people. I was honored by his friendship and I am proud to sing praises about his life.

Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian Country Today.