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75th Annual Summer Conference, August 10–13, 2006

Brian Maracle

One of the ground rules we were given to be part of this panel was that audio-visual equipment is not to be used in making our presentation. Which is a shame because I’d like to show you a couple of photographs that illustrate progress. The first is a photo of myself when I was about ten years old. I’m standing in my family’s backyard, in Buffalo, New York with my two brothers and four sisters. We are all lined up in a row against a chain link fence. Everyone is dressed in our very best Sunday clothes. I think it was Easter Sunday in fact and we were all on our way to church. The girls are all wearing knee length dresses with crinolines, dress overcoats, white ankle socks, patent leather shoes and little old lady hats. The boys are all dressed in dark slacks, tweed sport coats, white shirts, bow ties, belted trenchcoats and broad-brimmed fedoras.

If you’ve seen Superman on TV or in the movies, I was dressed like Clark Kent and my sisters were dressed like Lois Lane. Which is fine, for adults at that time I guess, but I was ten years old and three feet tall and I think I looked ridiculous.

What I didn’t understand for a very long time was that my family was on a mission. What I didn’t know was that we were embarked on the white man’s progress. We were leaving the overalls and work boots of reserve life behind. We were striving to become part of the American dream. (And, by the way, when we were living on the Canadian side of the border a few years later, we were chasing the Canadian dream. But whatever flag we lived under, it was the same dream, what I call in my old-fashioned way, the white man’s dream, a dream that is being chased by all races of people here on Turtle Island.)

My family was in the thick of the march of progress and as the oldest of seven children, I was the standard bearer. I was the first, among all my siblings, all my cousins, all my aunts, uncles, parents and grandparents, to graduate from high school. I was the first among all those people to enter university, the first to earn a degree, the first to speak French, and the first in about a hundred years to marry a white person. (That marriage didn’t last, by the way.)

We were like many onkwehonwe families those days. We were willingly and eagerly involved in chasing the dream, trying to catch up, trying to become like everyone else. My parents, for example, both left the reserve and volunteered to join the Canadian military in World War II, my father as a pilot in the air force, my mother as a member of the women’s army corps. For five years before the war, my father attended residential school, an institution designed, its supporters say, to educate the Indian child, an institution its critics say, designed to take the Indian out of the child. My father grew up speaking English so he didn’t have a native language to lose in that place. He says he was never beaten or abused there and had plenty to eat. The residential school experience, he says, was one of the best things that ever happened to him. So, after the supposedly well-intentioned brainwashing of residential school, after the forced homogenization of the air force, and after settling into an all-white neighbourhood in a city a hundred miles away from the reserve, it’s little wonder my father wanted to see me dressed like a 20th century Little Lord Fauntleroy.

In those days, my family were willing and eager travellers on the path of the progress. But nowadays, I, and many more of my people, look back on the last 500 years and see ourselves as unwilling or unwitting subjects of a conspiracy of churches, newspaper editors, schools, government and society to conduct a grand experiment to make over an entire race of people, to turn us all into little brown Canadians.

Since being invited to speak tonight, I’ve been rethinking progress as it relates to our people. I’ve talked about it with the panel organizers, looked up definitions and I’ve come now to think of it sometimes as a parade, but this is an inexact comparison. Because the Parade of Progress is not meant to have spectators. Everyone in the vicinity is expected to get off the sidewalk, leave what they were doing behind and join in.

Sometimes I think of progress as a river. Five hundred years ago, our people were stable and static islands of social justice, harmony and well-being. The first Europeans were greedy opportunists and scheming missionaries. They plowed their way through and around our islands of calm often leaving conflict and killing in their wake. And almost from the very first, our people were pressured to join the flow, to leave the calm and be swept along.

We have been tempted – as in “Worship our god, go to our schools, speak our language and your life will be better.” We have been tricked – as in “Sign here and we will give you everything you need and we won’t bother you.” We have been coerced – as in “Send your children to school or you won’t receive any more rations.”

We have survived attempts by the Government to help the churches save our souls by passing laws that prohibited our people from singing, dancing, praying and giving thanks. That law was on the books until the 1950s. We have survived attempts by the government to help busy-body do-gooders improve our family life by legalizing the forced kidnapping of our children and adopting them out to be brought up in white homes, some of them as far away as Europe.

But despite our resistance, the conspirators have been successful in many places, in many ways. Most of our people no longer live in their home communities. That single fact – relocation – has caused us more harm than just about anything else. People who live in the cities are cut off from their families, from living on and with the earth, from our languages, from our social and ceremonial life, from just about everything that makes us onkwehonwe.

Now, the conference organizers could have invited someone else from the onkwehonwe community, someone else who sees this Onward Christian Soldiers thing as something good. And you would now be listening to tales of wonderful progress our people are making in business, education, law, medicine and engineering and how we still need just a little more of this, a little more of that.

Yes, there are many among our people who praise progress and who say that the only way we will progress is to leave the past behind and join the parade. And the conference organizers could have picked someone like that. But they didn’t. Instead they picked me. Which I guess is my way of saying that I’m not going to be bragging about the progress our people are making in that direction. I’m not anti-progress, because I don’t know, and nobody knows, where the North American parade is headed.

There’s a lot of pressure on our people to change and I don’t like it. I’m thinking especially now about my own people, the Ohswekenhronon – the people of the Six Nations Grand River Territory. All the time, it seems, some well-intentioned church, newspaper editor, agency or government is saying that we onkwehonwe have to or should change in some way – to achieve some positive result of course. And what ticks me off about this is not the supposed end result so much but the fact that the things we cherish have no meaning and have no value to the people telling us we have to change. No one comes to us praising our values, customs and institutions. No one comes to us asking us how they might help us strengthen these things. No. It seems that whatever we hold dear and true is not good enough. So we must change.

What makes this even more maddening is the fact that I come from Ohsweken. One of the strongest and most traditional onkwehonwe communities on Turtle Island.

Our traditional government – a circle of chiefs named by the clanmothers and dedicated to peaceful co-existence, not “progress” – is still in place and still working. It’s stronger now than it has been in 50 years. In 1924 our community was still being governed by the Confederacy – our traditional chiefs. Canada outlawed the Confederacy and imposed on our community one of the blessings of progress – the gift of democracy in the form of an elected band council. So how has that little experiment turned out? Not very well. The government probably expected that the Confederacy would slowly fade away while Six Nations band members, starved for politics and elections, would become a shining beacon of democracy. It’s been 82 years since the Government imposed democracy on our community and in our most recent band council election, the band chief was elected by something like four percent of eligible voters.

For four generations our community has been forced to live with two governments – one that is supported by the people and one that is supported by the government of Canada. One that upholds the language, culture and traditions that were given to us by Shonkwaya’tison (our creator) – and one that is restricted to acting within limitations framed by politicians in Ottawa.

For 82 years now these two governments have been in conflict. The band council says that because they were democratically elected – by less than five percent of the band membership – that they have a mandate to do whatever they want. And for 82 years, they have been opposed by most of the people and the confederacy chiefs, with the result that little ever gets done.

One of the other things that makes my community special is our culture. I could talk for hours about the cultural origins of our traditional undemocratic government and how it works and why we want to hang on to it, but I want to use my remaining time to tell you of some other things we cherish that we don’t want to change.

For starters, Ohsweken is home to our longhouses – the place where we name our children, where couples get married, where we conduct funerals, where we commemorate our dead, where we give thanks a dozen times a year for our foods, the sun, the moon, our medicine helpers. The place we hold ceremonies that last from a few hours to eight days long – every word conducted in one of our original languages.

We have our unique traditional foods we continue to grow, eat and enjoy. We have our unique traditional games that we continue to play – snow snake in the winter and lacrosse in the summer. We have our own beliefs about our place in the world, beginning with how we got here on Turtle Island so don’t try to tell me that my ancestors walked over some land bridge from Asia.)

I mentioned at the beginning that I wanted to show you two photographs. The second photo I’d like to show you was taken five years ago yesterday on my wedding day, when my beloved Audrey and I were married. So, if I was dressed like Clark Kent when I was 10 years old, what do you think I was wearing on my wedding day five years ago? It wasn’t a tuxedo – it was a beaded breechcloth, beaded leggings, moccasins, a ribbon shirt and sash, a bone beaded choker and a feathered headdress. In other words, traditional Iroquois clothing. The same for Audrey, a traditional Iroquois woman’s outfit.

I said that these two photos illustrate progress – specifically they represent the progress I have made – backward. On a superficial level, I no longer wear white shirts and ties on special occasions. I now wear ribbon shirts and if it’s a very special occasion, my whole outfit. More importantly, I no longer live in the city surrounded by strangers. I now live on a reserve surrounded by relatives. I no longer buy all my vegetables and maple syrup in a store. I now grow and produce them at home. I no longer wish I could speak the language of my creator. Onen nonwa tsi nikeweyente tsi katatis, enwaton akathrori ne onkwehonweneha yaweronhatye tsi nahoten I kanonhtonnyon. I now speak my language well enough to say everything I’m telling you now. I no longer live in a spiritual vacuum. I’m now one of the speakers leading the ceremonies in our longhouse. I no longer worry about where my life is headed. I now have a clearly marked path, a loving companion and a life fulfilled. Don’t get me wrong, there are many things I have yet to do. There is more progress I have to make.

I have to improve the way I teach our language so that more people can learn more quickly. I have to improve my own fluency so that one day I might write the great Mohawk novel – in Mohawk. I have to learn all of the speeches, songs, dances and protocols of the longhouse so that our ceremonial life will be strengthened. I have to learn the history and legends of our people, the secrets of the forest, the ways of the bird and animal life, so that I can become the man I might have been 500 years ago.

I am not the only one in my community making progress backwards. Most of the people attending longhouse, most of the people supporting the Confederacy are on the same path. We are swimming against the current, trying to get back to a more traditional way of life – a sounder, saner, healthier way of living.

And that’s the difference between the progress that North Americans and Ohswekenhronon are making. We know where we are headed.

We know that we have responsibilities that must be fulfilled. We know that at the beginning of time Shonwaya’tison made the first human beings from a handful of clay, and he used his breath to breathe life into us. We know that in exchange for the gift of life, that we are obligated to give him our thanks on an ongoing basis for all the blessings of creation that he has bestowed upon us. We know that we have an obligation to treat one another with respect and with what we call a good mind. We know that we have an obligation to pass on our teachings, our traditions and our language to our children and our children’s children. That is what being an onkwehonwe is all about. That is the direction our traditional people are headed. And the good news is – we’re making progress.

Copyright © 2006 Couchiching Institute on Public Affairs
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