Balancing act


Who will the Seneca be tomorrow?

In his book, ''Utopian Legacies,'' John Mohawk wrote, ''Lightening strikes the earth hundreds of times every day but produces fire only rarely, and those fires seldom burn very far from the point of impact. Over centuries, however, some fires can be expected to be significant. When conditions are right, fires can burn huge areas and conceivably change the world they touch forever. Revitalization movements - movements to create conscious change in the culture inspired by visions, revelations, or challenging circumstances - have appeared among human populations in history in a manner resembling lightening fires.''

John Mohawk himself was like a rare lightening strike that ignited fires in the minds, hearts and souls of countless Seneca and other Iroquois people. He may be best known for his work: ''Basic Call to Consciousness,'' which maintained that traditional Native people hold the key to reversing the destruction of the natural world and depletion of natural resources. His writings helped to fan the flames of a cultural and political resurgence throughout the Iroquois Confederacy that began in the 1970s and never really died down, but only changed course.

John wasn't your average educated Indian loaded up with a white man's university Ph.D. He was a true scholar who got excited about history, but he was equally passionate about the present and the range of possibilities for the future. John was a guy with big ideas to match his big smiling eyes. His disarming grin, cavernous dimples and infectious laugh immediately put you at ease. He wasn't just smart and eloquent: he made you think; think about things from another perspective in ways you ordinarily wouldn't, from a standpoint you might otherwise easily dismiss.

When John talked, people listened. Intently. When he spoke at conferences or gave an address, he never came across as an erudite academic. Armed with endless anecdotes and a quick wit, he provoked and encouraged, engaged and empowered many of us. When his talks drew to a close, one often felt disappointed, wanting him to go on, thirsting for more. In the most inconspicuous of ways, he inspired us to learn more than we already knew - foremost about ourselves, as Indian people, and our history, and he suggested that we expand our thinking and consider ideas beyond our comfort zone.

When John died in December 2006, it was as if a collective gasp was expelled from the local Indian communities and more than a few of us stopped to consider what a terrific loss this was.

John wasn't a leader in the traditional longhouse sense. He wasn't a titleholder, a chief, or a faithkeeper. He wasn't a leader in the political sense at the Seneca Nation; never ran for office, and never wanted to. But he was among the most respected and admired leaders in a general sense. He was a leader among us because he helped to bridge opposing views and created pathways between polarities, the traditional and the non-traditional, the Indian and the non-Indian, the young and the old, the past and the present. The bridge that he labored over led back to the school of traditional thought. A school of thinking that emphasized the need to maintain for ourselves as Native people the things that distinguish us from all others, to honor the sacred and to express our voice and our vision for the world.

It is true that there are others out there today who hold the same ideals dear, but they do not possess the same innate sensibilities he had for carefully maneuvering through and traversing difficult issues, weighing and balancing all concerns while also managing to win the respect of the opposition. John has left a crater-sized leadership gap that is felt most profoundly in New York state Indian circles, but also throughout Indian country.

Nearly a year before John passed, Indian country lost standout intellect Vine Deloria Jr., Standing Rock Sioux. Deloria, another great Indian mind, was widely known and often cited for his writings including ''God is Red'' and ''Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto.'' Deloria's passing was a tremendous loss to Indian country. Recently, when it was suggested that John Mohawk was among the greatest Indian thinkers and writers, second only perhaps to Vine Deloria. Seneca Nation President Maurice John shook his head and said, ''Not in my book. John was the best.''

While Vine was no doubt brilliant, he was also known to be cantankerous and feisty, challenging to the point of abrasion. John, on the other hand, was known for his sense of humor, for his old-time diplomacy and oratory skills, and the ways in which he reached out to people and drew them in.

At John Mohawk's funeral, newly elected Seneca Nation of Indians President Maurice John related a very personal story about the impact John Mohawk had on him. Back in the day, when Maurice John - affectionately known as Moe John around the Seneca Nation - was young and felt bullet proof, he ran his own successful business selling tax-free gas on ''Old 17.'' By invoking sovereignty, he did well - until the IRS came after him demanding millions of dollars in back taxes they claimed he owed. He didn't back down, but neither did they.

Nasty letters, phone calls, and the threat of jail time had him over a barrel. He started to feel as though there might be no way out. And then there was a knock on the door. It was John Mohawk.

John walked him through an understanding of sovereignty and helped him figure out a course of action. There were no easy answers; Moe ended up doing a little time, rather than pay. But John Mohawk had a way of looking at problems and finding manageable solutions. Moe never forgot that.

''John was a one-of-a kind,'' Moe John said. ''I think we'll be looking for a long time far and wide for someone capable of filling his shoes. But we need more John Mohawks, we need someone of that caliber who can sit among us, be critical and constructive, objective, concerned and helpful all at the same time.''

Moe John sees the need for pronounced strategies, specifically youth and educational programs that will develop and hone strong leadership. He himself has just completed his first year as president of the Seneca Nation, a short two-year stint. He presides over an approximately 7,600-member nation, whose net revenues from gaming enterprises alone totals more than $450 million and whose programs and businesses employ more than 5,500. The Seneca Nation finds itself in the healthiest economic state in its history.

Still, Maurice John has had his share of challenges in his first year, including a major head-on battle with the state and what was a super-charged incoming governor-elect Eliot Spitzer, who expressed a clear intent to collect taxes on reservation sales of gas and cigarettes. He has also had to contend with leaders and citizens groups of Buffalo, vocally opposed to the Senecas' pursuit of a casino in downtown Buffalo. On both counts, he has stood his ground, never wavering from his position.

On the state's attempt to collect taxes, Moe John said, ''It is non-negotiable. We take a tough stand on this because we take seriously our position as Keepers of the Western Door. This is about maintaining our sovereignty and what we have left.''

This past fall, Spitzer announced a new date of April 1, 2008, in which his administration would again attempt to collect cigarette taxes from the Indians. When asked about this, Moe gave a little smile. ''I hear dates all the time. We just have to stay united,'' he said. ''But I like Spitzer, he has kept his word. I believe he's honorable. He has not sent in the [State] Troopers.''

Living by the belt

Lately, Moe has been talking to anyone who will listen about the Two Row wampum belt, better known among the Seneca as the Guswentah. The belt commemorates an original treaty with the Dutch. The belt recognizes the sovereignty of the Haudenosaunee and the Europeans who descended on their lands. The two rows of dark wampum represent two paths or vessels traveling down the same river together. One vessel, a canoe, represents the Haudenosaunee, their laws, their customs and their ways. The other vessel, a ship, represents the white people, their laws, their customs and their ways. Each travels the river together, side by side, but in their own boats. The belt signifies an agreement between the two to not interfere in the internal affairs of the other.

''I think about the Two Row every day; it reminds me of who I am,'' Moe said. ''We have to honor it and stay true to the Guswentah. Sometimes we get lost, we cross over and we get a foot in the other boat; we can't do that, we'll lose ourselves. Our grandmothers are always looking over our shoulders. We have to honor them by embracing and maintaining our differences.''

Maurice John seems sincere and dedicated to the concept of the Two Row wampum and the need to uphold Seneca traditions. But the 21st century presents both opportunities and dilemmas for the Senecas in equal measure. The job as president of the Seneca Nation requires more than just signing off on payroll and standing up to the feds and the governor; it requires vision and action and the ability to balance the desires of today against unique cultural concerns and the needs of the future in a way that few non-Native leaders have to consider.

Surveying the landscape and developments at the Seneca Nation, there is plenty to be optimistic about. Moe John clearly likes what the casinos do economically for the Nation. He points to vast improvements to essential programs and services including health care, education, housing and general quality of life, but he is not blind to what may be the unintended cumulative effect on his people: cultural erosion. According to the president of the Seneca Nation, casinos are not the cultural imperative. ''Casinos do not define who we are, they never will. They are only a business, and like all businesses, I suspect that they will have a lifespan, a beginning and an end. I don't think they'll be around forever, but I believe that we as Seneca people will,'' Moe said.

''What's important here is that in the process of having success - and the mainstream defines success in terms of money - we don't lose sight of who we are. Our definitions of success have to remain different. Our definitions include language retention and cultural strength. Casinos do not embody our spirit, our longhouse structure does. We can't allow others to define us and we have to be careful about how we redefine ourselves. There has to be the continuity that comes from our grandmothers.'' Moe John doesn't want to sound like a Native stereotype when he invokes the grandmothers, but he is genuine in the references. After all, he was raised by his grandmother.

Pete Jemison, Seneca, director of Ganondagan State Historic Site in Victor, N.Y., said that the Seneca Nation, like many tribes, is at a cultural crossroads. ''We're in a difficult position today; the world is testing all of us and our resolve. It's not just the Seneca, but all of us in the confederacy; we're all wrestling with who we want to be and where we're going. We need to come to a place of understanding of who we are right now, and revisit what is at our core. Whatever direction we decide to go in, we have to do it with real conviction.''

Maintaining cultural boundaries and definitions may be a substantial challenge, but maybe not the greatest challenge. When asked what the greatest challenge is before the Seneca Nation, Moe doesn't hesitate or flinch. ''Addiction, substance abuse. Those are our greatest enemies and our biggest challenges,'' he said. ''I don't think there is one family within the Seneca Nation that has been spared this plague. We are all touched by these problems either directly or indirectly in our families. It is a nasty and pervasive problem, but we have to start tackling this disease openly and aggressively. There is too much at stake, there is too much to lose.''

The Seneca Nation is currently in the process of establishing an initiative to better address drug and alcohol abuse in its communities. Tribal Council has appointed a Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation Committee to begin developing a program to be implemented by early spring. Efforts will focus on prevention and recovery. The Seneca Nation expects to construct a rehabilitation treatment facility on one of the territories as one measure to help people in recovery.

''Clean, healthy and sober minds - that's the goal,'' Moe John said. ''We want our people strong of mind and spirit. We have a lot of work to do. We need our youth; we need their voices and their contributions. We need them healthy and productive; they are the future of the Seneca Nation.''

Bone of contention

For the most part, Moe John has broad support within the communities of both Allegany and Cattaraugus. For members of the Seneca Nation, it is easy to rally around the need for campaigns against substance abuse and stronger programs to aid in recovery. Few members would disagree with his strong stance against the state regarding taxes. And the casino issue, which divided the community several years back, is no longer a contentious one since members seem to have come to terms with their existence, perhaps given the obvious benefits, both in terms of programs and services and direct benefits.

But as with any leader, there are bound to be detractors and disagreements. There is always at least one issue that sparks controversy. For Moe John and the Senecas, it may be the very core issue of identity and membership - an issue that appears to be a growing phenomenon among tribes across the country, particularly when it involves casino tribes with greater financial capital and distribution payments are made to the membership. This issue has the potential to wreak havoc and tear communities in two.

For Moe John, it is a tricky issue that reveals something of a contradictory crack in his stated drive to return to and maintain traditions. At a recent conference at Syracuse University, Moe John served as the keynote speaker and openly discussed what he feels is the need to reconsider how the Nation treats children born of Seneca fathers. Conferring Seneca status in a patrilineal fashion has huge implications and would require the nation to formally change its enrollment policies.

Dating back to the beginnings of time of the Seneca people, lineage was passed down through the mother, matrilineally. In other words, Senecas are born only from Seneca mothers. Until the turn of the century, all of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy followed this matrilineal practice that defined the membership of each nation. In 1876 the Mohawks who sit on the border of the United States and Canada, bisected by the St. Lawrence River, broke from this practice, but not of their own doing. The Mohawk's change from matrilineal to patrilineal was the result of a policy imposition from Canada - the passage of the Indian Act required that membership be determined patrilineally - part of the Canadian government's attempts at ''advancement of the Indian.''

For the Senecas, and hundreds of other tribes across the country, the issue of identity - particularly cultural identity - is intimately tied to language, traditions and practices. It is more than a question of blood and proof on paper.

Later, when pressed about the highly charged matter of membership, Moe said that this is an issue that members of the nation should discuss, because of the pain that it causes so many children who are relegated to a status of ''other.'' He pointed out that in the distant past, people like Mary Jemison, who were captured and adopted, were not treated as though they didn't belong; they were fully embraced as Seneca. He called this a ''modern problem'' where we treat people who are undeniably half Seneca - but the ''wrong half'' - as different, or less than.

In his Syracuse address, he went so far as to call it a form of child abuse. However, he recently clarified that he did not necessarily mean that enrollment policies should be changed. Moe said, ''I'm not advocating change, I'm advocating fairness.'' Moe John has suggested a ''non-Seneca enrollment card'' - the details of which are yet to be fleshed out.

It's fair to say that the prospect of changing Seneca enrollment policies or criteria is an issue akin to a landmine - something anyone running for elected office might want to avoid. It is a potentially explosive issue not likely to go away, but Moe has a point: it is a subject the nation should sort through.

It seems incumbent not only on the traditional chiefs, clan mothers and faithkeepers, but also on the non-traditional leaders of each respective nation to help set a course for the future and steer the nation in a direction that ensures long-term cultural survival. The real question though is not whether people of the Seneca Nation will continue to endure, but whether the traditional culture will survive. This is an age-old question given new, exaggerated life against the backdrop of the seductions of the modern world, technological advances and the American affliction with consumer culture, not to mention all that comes with the Senecas' newfound economic prowess.

No strangers to change

The Seneca have stood at the cultural crossroads before. From the beginning, the Senecas were governed by a traditional chief system. But in 1838, a deliberate policy of removal involving aggressive and highly unethical practices to obtain title to Seneca land undermined the integrity of the chiefs. In an indisputable fraud, several traditional chiefs, plied with liquor and money signed away tracts of Seneca territory, including the Tonawanda reservation and Buffalo Creek territory, now a part of the city of Buffalo.

The Canandaigua Treaty of 1794 carried little weight to prevent the land from being taken. Timothy Pickering, then personal envoy of President George Washington, made a statement to the Senecas. He said, ''[This] is a new and important security against your being cheated; and shows the faithful care which the United States now means to take for the protection of your lands.'' But Pickering's words meant nothing.

A special act of Congress allowed the Seneca of Tonawanda to buy back their land, but this represented only a tenth of the total amount by which they were defrauded. Buffalo Creek was taken in what amounted to theft on a grand scale. After that, the traditional chief system at Cattaraugus and Allegany was dismantled and in 1848, the elected form of government that exists today was instituted.

Despite the change in the governance structure, the chiefs and the traditional people of the longhouse continued to practice in the community - they simply did not have governing authority. Still, questions arose about the fragility of the traditional system and its viability. The Seneca themselves may have wondered: Where will we be in the year 2000?

More than 150 years later, the Seneca still have a strong traditional longhouse following. The Seneca Nation supports language programs - although language fluency among the approximately 7,600 members is dangerously low. The nation provides financial support to the Faithkeeper's School, which focuses heavily on Seneca culture and language, with the long-term goal of handing down the language and traditional knowledge to younger generations, thereby sustaining the culture.

Moe John speaks proudly of these efforts, and is quick to give credit to those people in the proverbial trenches who commit themselves day in and day out to keeping the fires strong.

But big questions remain: Where are the Seneca going and who will they be tomorrow?

In ''Basic Call to Consciousness,'' John Mohawk wrote: ''We, the Haudenosaunee, have clear choices about the future. One of the choices we have faced is whether to become Westernized, or to remain true to the Way of Life our forefathers developed for us. ... We have chosen to remain Haudenosaunee, and within the context of our Way of Life, to set a course of liberation for ourselves and the future generations.''

Seneca Nation presidents have short two-year, non-consecutive terms. They do not have much time to establish a legacy. When asked what he would like to be remembered for, Moe John said, ''I'd like for people to say: He's the guy that talked about the Guswentah. He's the guy that reminded us of who we are.''

Every day Maurice John and the Seneca are confronted with a supreme challenge to balance the competing demands of a world that cries for the need for more, bigger, faster, better, easier living and the very real and critical need to slow down and take the time to learn the Seneca language, attend ceremonies and lend cultural detail to the definition of Seneca. ''We have to ask ourselves: What are we offering the next generation?'' Moe said. ''To say that we are prosperous is not enough; we have to maintain our cultural priorities; otherwise, we lose everything.''

It is no easy balancing act. It takes more than reminding and hope. It takes doing with conviction. Embracing, supporting and doing. Sometimes, it takes a strike of lightening.