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Bill Fenton and the Iroquois

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On June 17, Dr. William (Bill) Fenton, 96, elder anthropologist and dean of
"Iroquoianists," passed into the spirit world. Then - serendipitously - on
July 4, The New York Times carried a fine piece by author Charles C. Mann,
"The Founding Sachems," about the likely impact of American Indian
traditions, particularly the Iroquois Great Law of Peace, on the new
American "nation's democratic spirit."

The elements braid together. Fenton, the old-school anthropologist, already
a mature scholar by the early 1940s, grew up around Seneca and Tuscarora
country in western New York and knew the old Indian practitioners of the
long-house culture. He went on to establish a whole school of American
Indian studies that focused on Iroquois traditional practices that used
present ethnography to "telescope" into history to understand ancient
practices. He would also become a primary antagonist as the Indian
leadership generation of the late 1970s in Iroquois country pressed for
land and cultural rights and demanded return of sacred objects from
museums.

Mostly squeezed out of destitute families at the turn of the 20th century,
fundamental documents of the traditional longhouses - specifically, about a
dozen revered wampum belts - were in contention and their return was
demanded by the activist leaders and academics of the reinvigorated
Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Fenton defended the culture and methodologies of
museums and opposed the activist arguments, and for a couple of decades
became the focal point of attacks, "bloodied by the issue," as historian
Francis Jennings has said.

Later, when the controversy arose in earnest over whether the Iroquois
Great Law of Peace had influenced America's Founding Fathers, polemicists
among Fenton's many student-scholars joined the fray, involving Fenton
perhaps in arguments that the grand maestro would not have pursued. Both
(and more) sides hit their slaps in the various heated debates, but it is
fair to record that in time, Fenton relented his position and even
participated in at least one subsequent repatriation of Iroquois wampum
belts.

Hostility against Fenton continues in some sectors among Iroquois thinkers,
each with their own reason, but beyond the polemics we can also remember
the notable scholar for the significant contribution he made to the
preservation of ancient knowledge. Brilliantly exacting and forthright,
Fenton's ethnographic work with the gifted and learned Native elders of
that still highly immersed generation captured whole swaths of knowledge,
as objectively as it was possible for the classically trained scholar.

Fenton's treatises became classics of Iroquois studies and of anthropology
as a discipline, and are still practically useful to new generations of
Native scholars and even practitioners who openly value the recordings of
song cycles and the substantial direct quotations, recorded circa the
1940s, documenting Iroquois elders born as long as 150 years ago. Fenton's
passing reminded many of us how the polemics of the 1970s and 1980s
sometimes made easy enemies out of potential allies.

An appreciation is due The New York Times for tying this braid by choosing
Mann's essay to mark the historical reality of American Indian - and
particularly Iroquois - influence on the early "American" Founding Fathers.
Numerous books and articles have been devoted to this subject; and most
certainly, Benjamin Franklin directly referred to the strength of unity of
the Iroquois Six Nations as he exhorted his compatriots to defy the king of
England.

Among other evidence, history also records a dialogue where an Onondaga
sachem in 1744 exhorted the divided colonies to "speak with one mind" while
an American colonel in 1775 replied that the advice of this American Indian
forefather had been followed by the 13 colonies, which were by then, indeed
united. This controversial subject was debated nearly to oblivion in the
1990s, again with Fenton embroiled. This remains, nevertheless, a uniquely
important historical pillar and, we contend, source of the occasionally
palpable quality that can distinguish America's diverse history and its
remarkable American Indian roots.