In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native peoples today.
Please introduce yourself with your name and title.
Can you give us your Native name, its English translation and/or a nickname?
Losk^lhakehte’Ko’, meaning Big Fire, is a warrior’s name, and it shows that you will work, fight for, and stand up for the people. Placing this name on me and speaking it to Creator in ceremony was the last official act of my late Bear Clan Mother Marilyn John in the Oneida Nation Longhouse. It is a name that I will have a lifetime of experiences to live up to or grow into.
What responsibilities do you have within your nation and as president of United South & Eastern Tribes?
Within the Oneida Nation and as members of the Haudenosaunee, we have the responsibility to safeguard a place for the future seven generations. As leaders we are taught to weigh the effects of decision-making on this generation as well as our children’s children unto the seventh generation
The founding principle of USET is “Because There Is Strength in Unity." That is our true strength. Our mission statement reads:
USET is dedicated to enhancing the development of Indian tribes, to improving the capabilities of tribal governments, and to assisting the member tribes and their governments in dealing effectively with public policy issues and in serving the broad needs of Indian people.
In part, USET's purpose is to promote Indian leadership in order to move forward with the ultimate, desirable goal of complete Indian involvement and responsibility at all levels in Indian affairs; to lift the bitter yoke of poverty from our people through cooperative effort; to reaffirm the commitments of our tribes to the treaties and agreements heretofore entered into with the federal government in a government-to-government relationship, and to promote the reciprocity of this relationship and those agreements and treaties. USET is entering into its 45th year as an organization.
I also serve Indian country in my role as senior strategist, Blue Stone Strategy Group. Blue Stone's key areas of service include tribal governance, leadership development, business advisory, and economic development. All our platforms are directed at the protection and advancement of tribal-nation sovereignty.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead?
I was born to the second post-boarding-school generation. Our people had survived what may have been the greatest effort of the federal government to be done with the "Indian problem." We survived assimilation and the termination era.
As Indian country lead itself out of the termination era, many accomplishments and challenges were present. I was born on the Seneca Reservation. The Senecas led a great effort to prevent the Army Corps of Engineers from claiming Seneca lands to build the Kinzua Dam. Although the lands ultimately were taken for the dam, and Seneca people were displaced from their homes and land, the long battle engaged the spirit of the Senecas. It was as if this event awoke the consciousness of our people. Indian country began to waken and speak with a voice based on principle of self-determination.
As children, my generation witnessed the passing of the Indian Civil Rights Act in 1968, the takeover of Alcatraz Island in 1969, the Wounded Knee uprising in 1973, the Longest Walk Movement in 1978, a new era following passage of the Self Determination and Education Act (1975) and the Religious Freedom Act (1978). This rising voice of Indian country activism resulted in a need for empowerment to address the many hardships of the U.S. government's failed trust responsibility.
This experience, coupled with time-honored tradition and the rebirth of Indian consciousness, has prepared me for a diverse set of challenges all aimed at achieving the goal of nation rebuilding and addressing the failed trust relationship we find ourselves in today—a post–Self Determination era. We in Indian country need to stand united or divided we will fall.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
Of course, the easy answer is my family. But as I reflect on past influences, I would have to say that I have been guided by the overall legacy of my people, including our culture and heritage. I would also add that the unique heritage of Indian country and the legacy and struggles American Indians have persevered through also led me to be the person I have become. I think the biggest influence on me beyond family and other Native people is the book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.
Are you a descendant of a historical leader? If so, who?
The Oneida Nation has many historical leaders, including our famous Revolutionary War chiefs. These leaders, who negotiated treaties with President Washington and other Founding Fathers, include Shenendoah, Good Peter, and Daniel Bread. The legacy of leadership goes back even further, in fact, to Hiawatha and the founding of the Great League of the Haudenosaunee. Although he is Mohawk by birth, Hiawatha remains the patriarch of all the peoples in our great league.
Where is the Oneida Nation located?
The Great Oneida Nation is located in our aboriginal territory—a land that has embraced the dust of my ancestors since time immemorial, my homeland—in what is now central upstate New York. Wherever I travel on Turtle Island, though, I feel the patrimony of the people resonate. I feel at home in those territories as I embrace the lifeways of our peoples that define Indian country. Or as the Mescalero Apache writer and musician once joked, “I am inter-tribal."
Where are the Oneida people originally from?
Turtle Island. Is that not all Oneida territory? As defined by treaty in 1794, our territory exists within our aboriginal homelands. The treaty declared, in part:
The United States having thus described and acknowledged what lands belong to the Oneidas . . . and engaged never to claim the same, nor to disturb them, or any of the Six Nations, or their Indian friends residing thereon and united with them, in the free use and enjoyment thereof.
For as long as the sun shall give light, as long as the rivers flow, as long as the grass shall grow green. That 300,000-acre tract is located in what is now central New York. This land was stolen even before the ink was dry on the treaty.
What is a significant point in history from the Oneida community that you would like to share?
My nation is a founding member of the Great League of the Haudenosaunee. We are the peoples who greeted and treated with the Dutch, then the French, then the English and others who came to the “New World” escaping from religious persecution, beginning in 1613. During the American Revolution, George Washington pleaded with Oneida to join on the side of the colonists, which we did. It is spoken in certain circles that if Oneida did not join with the colonists, this would be a French-speaking country.
The Founding Fathers sat in our League Councils and realized that if “Six Nations of . . . savages” could come to together in a lasting confederation of peace and righteousness, so could the Thirteen Colonies. In 1777 the Continental Congress declared to the Oneida, “We have experienced your love, strong as the oak, and your fidelity, unchangeable as truth. While the sun and moon continue to give light to the world, we shall love and respect you. As our trusted friends, we shall protect you; and shall at all times consider your welfare as our own.”
These words seem like forgotten promises. But my people will continue to remind the people of the United States of the promise and commitment they made through treaties.
How is the government of the Oneida Nation set up?
We have a modified traditional government, based on our original form of governance, which is rooted in the original teachings we refer to as the Great Law of Peace. We govern through our clan system and operate in council based on a consensual decision-making process.
Our appointment through the clans is a lifelong appointment. We have seats for three principal men from each of the three clans of the nation, so there are nine clan representatives. According to tradition, male council members are responsible for daily decisions while Clan Mothers make long-term decisions.
To read the full interview visit the NMAI series here.