Skip to main content

‘Humility personified’

If you’re lucky, there are a few people in your life who will help make it better. John did that for me, like I know he did for many others. He helped me get my first teaching job. He helped me to become a writer and scholar. And he helped make me a better Seneca. Over the years, we spent hours talking about Seneca and Haudenosaunee history, law, and politics and Indian life in general. It’s hard to imagine what it means that he is gone.

John’s talents were both obvious and subtle. In the world of law and politics, there is not a lot of humility. John was humility personified. With his raw intellect, sense of purpose and willingness to laugh, he was highly influential and respected from years of engagement in our collective political life. Perhaps no more telling of that fact was what happened at John’s funeral at the Newtown Longhouse at the Seneca Nation’s Cattaraugus Territory. In attendance was an assembly of leaders from the historic Six Nations that may have never before been assembled. The president and elected leaders of the Seneca Nation sat alongside the Tadadaho and the other leaders and clan mothers of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy to pay their respects to this gentle but great man who we all looked to for help from time to time.

It cannot be forgotten how unique John was. John was a Longhouse Indian who had a Ph.D. and a job as a tenured faculty member at an American university. I believe he was the first one of our people to do that. And in so doing, he was a symbol of resistance against the 500-year crusade of the colonists to deny the intellectual achievements of indigenous peoples. To them, we have for most of our history together been nothing but noble savages who deserved to have our nations neutralized and our lands seized. In John, that stereotype was shattered. I can hear them say: “A savage as a university professor? My, what is the world coming to!”

John was far too polite to ever verbalize such a sentiment, but I can hear him laughing right now at the joke of it. No matter how much he became part of the white world, John always knew which side he was on.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

We also cannot forget John’s wisdom, which I believe was mostly a reflection of his elder’s perspective. He was wiser than his years. I can’t count how many times I remember talking to John about some highly traumatic moment then affecting our Seneca Nation. John was always able to add a historical lens to the issue that always put it into perspective. When one can think of contemporary events against the backdrop of seven generations, it is much easier to understand them. For example, it’s hard to appreciate that sometimes people just need to screw up every once in a while in order to learn some hard lessons. Maturity and wisdom give you that kind of insight.

Like many, I’ve got a big hole in my heart right now both for myself and our people. But John did the work here that he was sent to do, and for that we should all be thankful. Da nay ho.

Robert Odawi Porter, J.D., Seneca, is a professor of law, senior associate dean for research and Dean’s Research Scholar for Indigenous Nations Law at Syracuse University. He is the founding director of the Syracuse University Center for Indigenous Law, Governance and Citizenship. He is the Seneca Nation chief counsel.