Water Man Spouts

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Interview with an Onondaga Chief

In the 1990s, I began a series of interviews with Onondaga Chief Paul Waterman. Paul was the elder chief, or "Wisdom Keeper," of the Turtle Clan. He was a member of the Onondaga Council of Chiefs, and sat on the Haudenosaunee (Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy) Grand Council of Chiefs.
Chief Waterman was selected by the Grand Council to be in charge of burial protection and repatriation issues. I had the opportunity to assist him in his work for many years. My sons are looking through my old files from those years, and considering putting some of it together for a book. That would be nice. Paul was not as well known to non-Indians as Oren Lyons, who was the Faith Keeper of the Turtle Clan. Oren's work has often been on the international level, while Paul focused on things at the Grass Roots level.
For young Indian people in North America, though, Chief Waterman served as a resource. For many years, when young people had a question on issues about burial ceremonies, including repatriation, their parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents would say, "Ask Chief Waterman about that. He will know." In the 1990 book "Wisdomkeepers: Meetings with Native American Spiritual Elders," by Harvey Arden and Steve Wall, the authors went to Onondaga to speak to the Elders about a number of traditional issues. Oren asked them, "Why come to us? We're the toughest nut to crack. You think we turn our Elders over to anyone who walks in the door? We guard them like pure spring water."
Oren asked Harvey and Steve if they were after secrets and mysteries? The two men answered that they were only interested in meeting some elders, and were not after secrets or mysteries, but only what the Elders cared to share. "That's good," Oren replied, "because I can tell you right now, there are no secrets. There's no mystery. There's only common sense."
I've tried to select some parts of my interviews with Paul that reflect that common sense. I think that people need to take time to step back from the fast pace of 24-7 cable news and the concrete jungles, and to shift to a different reality. Maybe this is a good time to sit on a hilltop in rural, upstate New York, and to share some pure spring water.
{The first Q&A, from "part 1" of the series of interviews, are in regard to burial issues:}
Q: How is the Native American Burial Protection and Repatriation Act working? Is New York State acting in good faith? Are museums starting to return things to the appropriate nations?
A: It's starting to work good, I think. A number of archaeologists are beginning to cooperate with the Onondaga Council of Chiefs. The Onondaga are the Fire Keepers, and so we are the right ones to return things to. Then the Onondaga return them to the proper society within the Six Nations.
Q: Many archaeologists have said that a problem with this law is that no one can identify a skeleton that is, say, 500 years old as belonging to any nation, much less clan or family. How do you answer this?
A: This is because they only know what they have read in a textbook. They need to talk to me. You see, a while back, I met an archaeologist who said that to me. And I said, "No, I can look at this burial, and I can say for sure that it is my grandfather or uncle. I recognize these remains as my family, my relations." After that archaeologist spoke to me, he realized that I am right. And this is why it is so important that archaeologists talk to an Onondaga chief."
Q: What might they learn from talking to an Onondaga Chief that they can't read in a book?
A: About who we are. That Onondaga's history goes back a lot farther than their textbooks say. Our traditions go way back in time.
Q: How far back?
A: Before there were trees and grass, the Creator gave our people Sacred Tobacco to communicate with.
Q: How old are the Onondaga? How long have you lived here, on this land?
A: (In Onondaga) The first words spoken by my people were the names of the alligator and of the turtle, and other animals white people call "prehistoric." How old are these animals? And how long have they lived here, on this land? We have ceremonies with dances where these animals are involved. Think about that, and you begin to understand how old the Onondaga are, and how long we have lived here.
Q: The US government and educational institutions refer to the Iroquois Confederacy as being about 500 years old. Why is this?
A: Europeans became aware of democracy when they met Indians 500 years ago. That's why they say that. That's why that number keeps coming up. But the younger people today know that we go way back before 1492. It's just some of the older ones who still believe that they were the only ones on earth who counted.
{In "part 2," I asked Chief Waterman more questions about politics, environmental issues, and the Onondaga Nation.}
Q: The Founding Fathers modeled the Articlesof Confederation and later, the US Constitution, in part on the Iroquois Confederacy. Ideas such as federalism, states' rights, and individual freedomswere native concepts. What important lessons didn't the US learn?
A: Democracy. Because democracy means being honest and telling the truth. Most white politicians are liars. They tell lies, and then pass laws to enforce their lies.
Q: Why doesn't Onondaga share non-Indian societies' fascination with the past misdeeds of leaders? Do you think Bill Clinton inhaled marijuana thirty years ago? Does it matter?
A: People grow up and change. Remember that the first Tadodaho was the meanest man on earth, until the song of the little birds changed him. He bacame a great leader.
So we respect change. We forget the bad. Maybe if I think of their past, I would say that the first Tadodaho had to be so bad, in order to become so good for his people.
But if we adopt a Mohawk into an Onondaga Clan, he is no longer thought of as a Mohawk. We know him as an Onondaga. And this is how my people view change. With respect.
Q: What are the advantages of a matriarchal society?
A: Women. What good are men without women's influence? They become greedy for power. In a matriarchal society, women aren't greedy for power, because society recognizes the power of being a woman.
Q: You have been busy organizing a grass roots alliance of environmentally-aware groups along the Susquehanna River. Tell us about this.
A: I have wampum from my nation, and the Grand Council. I wasn't elected for this work. I was selected. My role is to bring a message to non-Indian people along the Susquehanna, and all the rivers and streams connected to it. ....
My goal is to teach people that the Susquehanna was my people's first highway. It is the actual bloodline of Mother Earth. My message is the Susquehanna is sacred, and deserves our respect.
They say that Indians were the first environmentalists. The shoresof the Susquehanna hold the remains of these Ancient Ones. And so today, I am fighting to protect the Sacred Grounds that hold the remains of these first environmentalists. .... that is why it's so important that we work together. Again, the Two Row Wampum Belt.
Q: How can people join and help?
A: During the Revolutionary War, a man named Sullivan was supposed to exterminate the Onondaga. We're still here, so he didn't kill us all. But he did kill a lot of families.
Every one of those families knew the history of the area they lived in. They had an oral history of the events of those places that were important to our people. It might be Owego, or Sidney, or Greene, or Tioga Center. But this knowledge died with them in that war. So today we rely on the people who live in those places to help us with the history hat their people have handed down.
Q: What types of problems do you face in doing reburial ceremonies?
A: It can be hard, you know. Archaeologists are paid big money by construction companies and the state to dig up my ancestors. But they don't pay for reburials. I've had to pay for most of that, myself.
Also, some Indian people can make it hard. I was just doing a reburial, and had the remains wrapped in a doe skin for ceremony. Someone said, "Don't let white people watch. Don't let them use cameras. This is sacred."
I said the earth is sacred, too. We all walk on the earth, and if a white person takes a picture of its sacred beauty, I think that's good.
The stars are sacred to my people, too. But I don't mind if white people look up at the stars. I don't own them.
The Onondaga know that the sun is sacred. We recognize that the Creator intends the sun to shine on all of the races and religions.
Q: In Corning, NY, a few years back, we helped preserve some ancient stone monuments. One local fellow, a doctor, said he had never thought about Indians before he came into contact with those monuments. Then he said he became obsessed. What happened?
A: There's something there, a force that communicates. Remember that glacial lake there? My ancestors' ancestors, the Ancient Ones, had ceremonies there. .... My people laid down and drank the water from that lake, and the water communicated a message from the Creator. And that is what these stone monuments communicate, too ....
You know, it's funny, even when I was a little boy, and I was on a farm, I would lay on the ground and drink water from a spring. I would think about my name, Water-Man. I knew that water was a messagefrom the Creator when I was a little boy. And so it makes me sad to think that the water is so dirty today. Little children can no longer lay on the ground and drink water from a spring or a lake. The people who have poisoned the water have cut little children off from the message of the Creator.
{"Part 3" was conducted at a reburial ceremony at the Penn Site, near Jamesville, NY. The site was part of the grounds of a state prison.}
Q: This is a large crowd. Tell us about the people here today.
A: I remember when I was the only one, and did this alone. Maybe an archaeologist would watch. But today, there are Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk. And some Indian people are here from Venezuela. They are coming to the Long House today.
There are also people from Onondaga County, all the surrounding communities. CBS and NBC are here. I really like the people I've met from Hamilton College. They are seeing this first-hand, and it opens their minds. They understand what this means to us.
Q: Is the archaeologist that excavated the site here?
A: No. He wasn't invited. It's impossible for a person who still justifies digging graves to grasp the spiritual concepts here.
Q: Describe these concepts.
A: This morning, there was a lot of thunder and rain. Some people wanted to postpone the ceremony. But I said no, this is the Thunder People, carrying on their duties to speak for the Creator. Then when I burned the tobacco during the reburial, three hawks appeared in the sky. A feather dropped from one, and landed next to us. A lady watched it fall, and she picked it up and handed it to me. All she could say was, "Wow!"
Q: What do you think about this being a prison site?
A: When we had the stand-off with the state over the highway in the 1970s, the same troopers that had guns pointed at us were called away to Attica, where they slaughtered the prisoners. Leon (Shenandoah, Tadodaho) said the prisoners just wanted to be treated like humans. We felt a connection. They died for us.
No one wants to be kept in a box. Not in a museum, not in jail. The prisoners in Jamesville are human beings, too. I wish they were here for the ceremony.
Q: This was the first time non-Indians were allowed to take an active part in the ceremony of reburial. Why?
A: They need to know what happened. These were families buried here, where in some graves the parents were actually holding their childrens' hands. Non-Indians had never seen this before. Letting the white women see this can help change public opinion, because women are the ones that can help society cure the sicknesses that cause people to kill people and then rob their graves. Women made today possible. White women and Clan Mothers. So, again, this is the power of the circle.
{The last interview took place shortly after 9-11.}
Q: People in the United States have had a difficult time since the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Onondaga recently released a statement of support to the USA. How do you view this?
A: We are really sorry about the innocent people. This isn't about government policy or religion. It's about human beings. It's about mothers and fathers. Sons and daughters. Brothers and sisters.
This is the same thing that happened to my people. I'm not pointing fingers, or saying one government is right, or one religion is wrong. .... I think this conflict today is money versus money. Without money, those terrorists could not have done what they did. But that doesn't concern me as much as the innocent human beings who have suffered and died ....
Q: The American people are divided about how to respond to the threat of terrorism. What are your thoughts?
A: Listen, when you say people are divided, think about this: the military is dropping bombs and food on Afghanistan. That is a divided approach, isn't it? What might have happened if hey brought in food before? Why isn't it just as important to fight starvation and suffering, as it is for oil and money?
I feel bad for the soldiers, too. Most of them are young men. They are patriotic. Like those who fought in Desert Storm, for their national interest. But I don't remember gas prices dropping much since then. So who's interest was this in? ...
So before anyone calls for violence, they should learn all they can about this conflict. Learn who has what interest in what resource. Don't advocate killing people without knowing why. That's cowardice.
Q: What do you think about the threat of chemical or biological warfare?
A: Do you mean the poor people who live near chemical dump sites? I think they will suffer and die. This is not a new threat, really. It's just on a different scale.
Or did you mean the past? They were nice to my family. When we were cold, they gave us a blanket. It was warm. But it had small pox on it, and killed thousands of my family.
Q: What do you think about the possibility of backlash against Arab-Americans and against Islam?
A: Look what they did to my family, the Susquehannas? Sullivan went down the river to find Onondaga and Mohawk. He couldn't find any, so he killed innocent people who he thought talked and looked like those he was after.
What do I think? I don't believe that anyone who kills innocent people because of their language or religion is a hero.
Q: President Bush has referred to fighting the "evil doers." What do you think of this?
A: Well, he's the same way. Those people in Afghanistan are so poor and miserable. They suffer when bombs kill their parents, and they hurt when bullets kill their children. So even if Bush believes what he is doing is righ, he has to commit evil acts to achieve his goal. .....
{My final questions were about the tensions being caused by the "religious right" in America, and on Chief Waterman's thoughts on "Divine Intervention."}
A: Well, church is good, religion is good. But don't overdo it. I tell people to ... be careful not to use your religion to judge your neighbor.
People who think that they are as good as the Creator think that they can move mountains. They can't. Do the Creator's will, and the mountains move.
Be a good neighbor. If my garden is ready beforeyours, we should share mine now, and your's later. Too many people don't understand the power of sharing. You have to remember that all of the earth is the Creator's garden, and he shares it with us. That's why I say sharing is divine intervention.
Remember the Y2K scare? Some people asked if we were prepared at Onondaga. If we had stored food and water. I said, listen, if the Creator wants to bring dinosaurs back, they'll be on your front lawn tomorrow morning. And if he wants to end the world, he will. On that day,do you want to tell the Creator that you prepared to meet him by storing food, or sharing it?
See, people suffer every day, from floods and hurricanes. If we want to do the work of the Creator, we share with them. That's doing the Creator's will.
Note: Chief Paul Waterman died a few years ago. Sometimes, when I see the problems with the world, including President Bush's fight against "evil-doers," the lack of response to Katrina, and the threat of violence in our culture, I like to go sit on that hill, near the spring, and remember the message he communicated. I hope you enjoy it, too.)


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