The world suffered a great loss last week with the passing of Tonya Gonnella Frichner (Gowanahs). A member of the Snipe Clan, Onondaga Nation, she was a lawyer, activist and professor of American Indian history, Federal Indian Law, anthropology, and human rights. She lived for many years in the New York metropolitan area where she played a key role in advancing indigenous rights within the United Nations.
Through the American Indian Law Alliance, an organization she founded in 1989, Gonnella Frichner provided legal and diplomatic support to Indigenous delegations in virtually all United Nations discussions related to Indigenous Peoples, including nearly two decades of drafting, negotiating and ultimately passing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Declaration, which received overwhelming support in the UN General Assembly, sets the minimum standard for individual and collective rights of Indigenous Peoples globally. In speaking about that major achievement, Gonnella Frichner always described it as a starting point and a tool to hold nation states accountable for their actions.
As a result of her years of dedicated work and the confidence she engendered, she was selected as the North American Regional Representative to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues from 2008-2010. After completing that term, Gonnella Frichner remained a central figure in indigenous work at the UN until her untimely passing.
I had the privilege to work with Gonnella Frichner over the past decade on several projects involving Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation (NOON), a grassroots organization of non-native people working in solidarity with the Onondaga Nation. We brought her to speak in Syracuse about the UN Declaration, the Doctrine of Discovery and other issues on which her voice was powerful and articulate. She also served as an important contact for us in seeking to extend our work to New York City.
When NOON began discussing a major initiative to honor the 400th anniversary of the Two Row Wampum, the first treaty between the Haudenosaunee and European newcomers, Gonnella Frichner provided key guidance to help develop, support and implement what became the Two Row Wampum Renewal Campaign. She helped us work with the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues that welcomed us to the United Nations following a 28-day paddling journey from the Onondaga Nation to Manhattan in the summer of 2013. She understood the value of uniting people of diverse backgrounds to work together for sovereignty, justice and preservation of Mother Earth.
Despite living far from her traditional roots at Onondaga, she operated in the white world's legal realm in the bright lights of New York City, and she remained deeply rooted in the ways of her people. Whenever I heard her speak, she always expressed great respect and support for the traditional system of governance and spirituality which has remained constant at Onondaga for more than1,000 years. She was one of those rare people who could exist in both worlds successfully, bringing tremendous benefit to both.
Gonnella Frichner was conversant and comfortable with the very different protocols of the Haudenosaunee Longhouse and the United Nations. As noted in her formal obituary, “She devoted her life to the pursuing of the right to self-determination, sovereignty, treaty rights, and individual and collective rights for Indigenous Peoples.”
As part of that she was a connector, bridging communities, organizations and nations. She served as the board chair of the Seventh Generation Fund for Indigenous Peoples, and on the boards of many other organizations ranging from the City University of New York School of Law Board of Visitors to the Interfaith Center of New York to the International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism.
Her work received great acclaim, culminating this past September when UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon quoted Gonnella Frichner as follows: "A longtime indigenous activist and former member of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Tonya Gonnella Frichner, once said, 'Indigenous peoples all speak many different languages but in our meetings, we are speaking one language. Our relationship to Mother Earth is identical.'” Among the many awards she has received are the Harriet Tubman Humanitarian Award, the Ellis Island Congressional Medal of Honor, the American Indian Community House International Service Award, the Ms. Foundation Female Role Model of the Year, and a City of Philadelphia proclamation in honor of United Nations Day and Gonnella Frichner's work to "promote the rights for native people around the world."
Tonya Gonnella Frichner worked actively to bring young people into the work for indigenous rights and respect for Mother Earth. Those of us she mentored, and the thousands of people whose lives she touched with her work and words are left to carry on the inspiring legacy that she so gracefully led during her extremely productive, but too short life.
Andy Mager has been active in movements for peace, social justice and environmental protection for over 35 years. A resident of Syracuse, NY, he is a cofounder of Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation and served as project coordinator for the Two Row Wampum Renewal Campaign. He now works as the sales manager for Syracuse Cultural Workers, a peace and social justice publisher.