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Grass-roots leaders share visions

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ITHACA, N.Y. ? Leaders from across Indian country gathered at Cornell University to leave advice for their descendants in the new millennium. By the time they finished, they had told a remarkable story of their own generation.

More than 30 speakers at the late November weekend forum told their own life stories, often with great emotion, presenting a collective biography of 30 years of enormous change and revitalization.

Their stories illuminated the grass-roots movement that preceded the occupation of Alcatraz Island in1970. They showed the deep influence of figures like Tom Porter, the Mohawk spiritual leader, and John Mohawk, the Seneca intellectual ? names little known outside the Indian community ? and how they inspired celebrities like former Cherokee Principal Chief Wilma Mankiller.

Although speakers dispensed hours of advice, many in the audience concluded their most important message was the example of their own lives.

The forum 'American Indian Millennium: Renewing our Ways of Life for Future Generations' was sponsored by Cornell's Akwe:kon Press, publisher of Native Americas Journal, the Life Way foundation and Indian Country Today.

'We need to make fundamental changes in the way we view, process and present our culture to the next generation,' explained Mohawk, a professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo. 'We want to see our traditions made coherent in the world.'

The conference featured a series of panels paired with responses from Indian youth, but one of its most revealing moments came in a program to honor Mankiller and Porter. Speakers traced the activism which erupted in the '70s with the occupation of Alcatraz and the siege of Wounded Knee back to a grass-roots movement called the White Roots of Peace, in which Porter and a group of elders traveled across the country to revive traditional ways.

'I can't tell you how much influence that group had in doing that kind of work,' Mohawk said. 'Groups in cars went from community to community. At each stop they would hold several days of meetings. People would tell about traditional knowledge.

'In 1968, '69, '70, it was not all that popular to identify yourself as a traditional Indian.'

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Mankiller became nationally famous serving as leader of the Cherokees from 1985 to 1995, but she told the audience she began her path of public service when she heard Porter speak at one of the meetings in the San Francisco area. 'I was very young when I met him, but it shows what a difference one person can make.

'I will never forget when he got up on a chair and spoke. He said many things I felt but never articulated.

'It was as a result of Tom that I was drawn into public speaking and writing to share my experience with other people.'

'Tom Porter made a generation of us,' Mohawk said. His message came not only in his words, but in his personal example. 'He actually represented traditional values. Without values, we don't really have a nation.'

At another session Mohawk traced his own turning point to meeting with Porter 30 years earlier. He was a graduate student in business management when the traditional group came to campus 'in a bluish-green bus. A lot of people piled out and one was Tom Porter.

'He told us, what are you doing here? You should be serving your own people.'

After some ups and downs, Mohawk said he found himself in the late '70s running another seminal Indian institution, the newspaper Akwesasne Notes. The paper inspired a generation of Indian journalism, but in Mohawk's description, it was produced by a commune living off the land on top of a mountain in remote Owl's Head, N.Y. 'We spent a lot of time chopping wood.

'It is absolutely remarkable we did as well as we did when we didn't have a business plan or a marketing strategy.'

These grass-roots efforts were going on all over the country in a generation of tremendous change, Mohawk said, and speaker after speaker added examples.

'We started at zero and we're not at zero any more,' Mohawk said. 'In a way, 30 odd years is not so long. But, God, we shared a lot of adventures.'