Sharing Ancestral Knowledge: An Interview with Chief Jake Thomas

(excerpted viewpoints of Chief Thomas)

By John Bacher (interviewer) | 1991-03-01 12:00:00

PEACE Magazine was honored to conduct this interview with the traditional Cayuga Chief and Faithkeeper of the Onondaga Longhouse, Jacob E. Thomas. Respected as "the epitome of a traditional chief," Jake was condoled as Cayuga Chief of the Sandpiper clan in 1973, after serving as subchief on the Iroquois confederacy council for 25 years. An Associate Professor of Native Studies at Trent University, Chief Thomas has been recognized for his many sacrifices and tireless efforts to preserve his people's heritage. Fluent in the Mohawk, Onondaga, and Cayuga languages, Professor Thomas travels throughout Iroquoia to preach the Great Law of the Peacemaker, and the Good Message, or Code of the Seneca prophet Handsome Lake. He is alone among Iroquois elders in remembering the rituals of Condolence, the ceremony used to raise up new confederacy chiefs. Chief Thomas is from the Six Nations territory along the Grand River, near Brantford Ontario.

The ancient pre-European system of government based on the Great Law of Peace was the basis for the self-government of the Iroquois here until 1924. At this time it was attacked by the Canadian government when the RCMP invaded the confederacy's council house and installed an elected band council. Evicted from their council house, the confederacy chiefs continued to meet in the Onondaga Longhouse.

This interview focuses on the relationship between the spirituality of the Longhouse religion and peace. The key conflict between the Canadian government and the Iroquois Confederacy was opposition to conscription during World War One.

The Canadian Government was aided at that time by the Mohawk Warriors Society many of whom were veterans of World War One. The Iroquois Confederacy has continued to assert its sovereignty nonviolently and even issues its own passports.

The Iroquois and the Hopi, both committed to non-violence, are the native American nations who have most resisted conversion to Christianity. Among the Iroquois, this was the achievement of the Seneca Prophet, Handsome Lake, who returned the Iroquois to the path of peace previously abandoned with disastrous results. The Iroquois had been confined to small reserves as a result of their participation in the American Revolution. Until his death in 1815, Handsome Lake had encouraged a cultural revival among the Iroquois. He denounced war, fighting, drinking, gambling, wife-beating, and land cessations, or "land sales". These reforms were combined with the continuation of religious rituals stressing reverence for nature, such as the Iroquois Thanksgiving address, the strawberry festival and the midwinter ceremony.

All of the chiefs of the Iroquois Confederacy, including Chief Thomas, have been threatened with death by the Warriors' Society, who reject the teachings of Handsome Lake. They denounce it as a Quaker-inspired deviation from traditional Iroquois ways. Handsome Lake's prohibition of gambling has also led to conflict with the Warriors, and to division between the United States sponsored Band Council at Akwesasne and the confederacy council. Here Chief Thomas discusses the spiritual values of the Confederacy and the Longhouse religion.

People are disunited at this time, as they were before peace ever existed. Before the founding of the Confederacy, nobody knew anything about peace. It happened long long ago (we were never interested in setting the dates). In those times, according to oral history, great warfare went on, with nations killing one another. There was no respect, no appreciation of one another among all the Iroquois-all the Mohawks, the "standing stone" (they call the Mohawks the people of flint). The people of the hills are the Onondaga; the Cayuga, the "big pipe" or "canoe people," and the Seneca, the "big mountain people." All these people had wars amongst themselves before the Confederation. The other surrounding nations, such as the Algonquins, and the Mohicans-all fought. The lack of unity made them weak.

When the Creator saw people were going in different directions, He sent a Prophet to bring peace to all mankind. The women were already at peace with each other. The Creator sent this Prophet to bring a prophecy. The Prophet came from the sky world. He was born as a Prophet on earth. He was the one who brought the Peace, Power, and Righteousness to our people and who organized to bring unity to all peoples.

But peace had to be accepted by the people before they could go on. You have to have a good spirit, a good mind to make peace. He brought the Great Laws of Peace, and laid them in front of the people. People accepted peace; that's what made them change their minds and see the wrong they had committed.

He said, we have to have peace first-Peace, Power, and Righteousness. What makes the power is when you're in peace with everybody. The more people come together, the stronger the peace will become. If you have only one person, it's pretty hard, you can't make it work. That's why you keep adding people and making it stronger. At that time, people never knew what peace was. They were surprised to hear about it. The Peacemaker proved what peace was to the people. He also showed what appreciation is, and respect for one another.

He even had to show himself what power he had. He was born from a virgin mother, and his grandmother disapproved because he was a fatherless child. She did not want to have a grandson whose father she didn't know. Her daughter could never tell her how it came about because she didn't know either. So when the Peacemaker was born, the grandmother tried to get rid of him in three different ways. She buried him, drowned him, and burned him in the fire. He survived.

He grew up to be a young man, and he was the one who brought in the four ceremonies. We give thanks to the Creator when all the different kinds of sustenance that we eat ripen. Then he told his people, the Huron, that he had a duty to go on a mission to the Mohawk people. From the beginning, some of the Mohawk people were for, and some against, the news they heard of Peace, Power, and Righteousness. They wanted him to prove that he was not just a common man. They put him on the top of a tree on the side of a cliff and cut the tree down. They said, "If you survive and come back tomorrow, we will accept the Great Peace." He did, so they accepted the Great Peace.

He brought together the Mohawk Chiefs and told them that peace begins deep in the heart. You have to practice it that way to show your people how your practice will bring peace. With more people, with the nations that will come in, we will build a Longhouse of One Family. That is where people will live; all the clans will stay in that symbolic longhouse. When one nation accepts peace, it will go right across the house and everybody will be peaceful in one house and one family. The power will come from unity. When they are all united, they think the same.

We still live in that struggle today. It is hard to have peace in our minds. We try to practice it, but it seems the so-called Left-handed Twin, is taking control of our mind. There are more people who will listen to the Left-handed Twin than there are good people. With evil also, the more people that listen, the more power. The good has power but you have to keep adding on. It's the same way with evil; you have to have some build-up of that power to be really powerful.

Now what happened, the bad thing in Akwesasne, was brewing up way before. The Evil Spirit was working hard to bring that up, adding more Warriors and more Warriors. Why would you have Warriors if there's no more war? That's what the Warriors today can't understand. (Well, I guess you're a Warrior if you go to war-a white man's war-but we haven't a war here, so you're not a Warrior for us.) They make a mistake by using the term "Warrior" because that was used before the Confederation, but that all stopped.

That's what the Peacemaker says: There will be no more Warriors from henceforth. Nobody will injure the Confederacy. So he elevated all the Chiefs; he said you have to have one head, one heart, one mind, like one body and that's how peace will work. It all works together. Many hundreds of people, if they all think the same, that's just like one body, one unanimous decision-just like one person may decide for herself. Hundreds, maybe thousands of people who all think that way-that makes it powerful. Peace will replace war, there will be nothing but peace.

That's how the Chiefs were elevated. The people also have to live according to the way the Law was laid down before them. Also, the Chiefs who were elevated were supposed to cultivate good minds to make peace to all nations right across different directions. That's why they planted the Great White Roots of Peace that point to the four cardinal points. It means that everybody will be peaceful, within all nations.

When the Europeans came, the native people were at peace, and they made treaties of peace and friendship. They made the Covenant of the Europeans (also called Covenant of the Five Nations). After that, the white man was supposed to protect the native people. If he sees his own people are treating native people wrong, it is up to him to tell his people not to do this because that's our treaty. And if the Chief finds an extremist among his own people, he can tell the white man, "You have a lot of power. You can straighten those people out; I'll leave it in your hands. Quieten them down, because you have a law, we don't."

From the beginning of time we were not given justice. I can't judge her, I can't judge him, I can't judge you. I can't judge anybody because first I have to judge myself before I judge someone else. I may know you're bad but I can't judge you through the eyes of the Creator. He can judge you and also the Evil Spirit; they're the two judges of whether you're doing right or wrong. Which side are you traveling on-the good path or the bad path? That's why some people suffer when they're dying; because they've done all these wrong things. The Confederacy doesn't have judges like the white man's government, who also have lawyers who can lie. They have police and judges who have no peace in their heart. They're there to give life away, that's why the judge will send you to the penitentiary for so many years; he's got no mercy. When a policeman takes that job he's willing to kill or be killed. His life is at stake, so he hasn't beliefs anymore. The same with a lawyer, he hasn't got a belief either, because he can lie, he can make people lie too.

The native people are saying there's no heaven for the white man up there. I can't say that-I don't know it-I'm just saying what they're saying. The Europeans didn't believe the prophecy that Christ gave them. They know that they have no heaven up there. They have no hell either; that's why they go to what they call "paradise" to rest there for a while until the world comes to an end. Their heaven is right here. You become a millionaire, that's heaven: you can tell everybody what to do. Not having a lot of money, others kneel down praying to him for money. He legislates your laws, the way you are going to live.

And so they have created what they call hell right here on this earth. Because they have heaven here, they also have hell. That's why they created prisons. We don't have prisons. When people go to prison, you might as well say they're going to hell now. If you're sent for life, there's no way out.

The Confederacy doesn't have any judges to give life away, because its members believe in the Creator. They're not there to give souls away. The Confederacy is based on Peace, Power, and Righteousness, but it's not by force. I can't force you. (European law has force: You don't want to do it? Okay, I'll make you do it.) But with us, if you don't do it, you just aren't going to do it, that's all. But if you've got a good mind, you're going to do it.

Now when you see what has happened this year, there is no comparison to peace. It went back again to the beginning of time when there was no peace. Those people [at the beginning of time] were not at fault, because they didn't know any better, they didn't know what peace was. But now I'm pretty sure everybody knows what peace is. Still, they do the wrong things. What started off at Akwesasne-I was there-went on and on. There was no peace there. It was all just money that disorganized the people. They didn't want to listen to Elders and the Confederacy. This is what I mean by "they've been told." The Chiefs told the people in Akwesasne and Kahnawake and Oka, but the Warriors were powerful and threatening. If people didn't do what warriors said, they'd get beaten up.

There were drugs and trafficking. One person who was there with the Warrior Society said, "I just got the heck out of there because of all the things that were going on." Fifteen, seventeen, eighteen year old kids-they had drugs. They didn't know half the time what they were doing, drinking and smoking. A man would give them money to stay there to defend the Warriors. That's what brought the Warriors more power.

The same thing happened during the American Revolution when the war broke out between the patriots and the British at the time. They didn't like the British laws, so they wanted to create their own laws. The Iroquois were caught in between in New York State, and when the war got nearer, Joseph Brant asked the Confederacy, "What are you going to do about it?" The Confederacy counselled for weeks and weeks, and they made a good decision: "We want to be neutral. That's not our war. Why should we be involved between two white men arguing?" The Iroquois were confused because both sides of the whites came from the Mother Country, so why are they arguing in our territory? The Confederacy was smart.

But Joseph Brant, who was educated in England, got upset at the Confederacy and started to take volunteers: "Who's going to volunteer to take the British side, to take up arms?" And the other side also started talking about the Iroquois taking the side of the Americans. So they split up. Some joined the British, some joined the Americans. The war started. The Confederacy said, "We're going to lose our territory as a result of it. We're never going to be the same anymore."

When the war was over, they could not live side by side with such bitter feelings, Iroquois against Iroquois. The Chiefs had seen it coming. Some Mohawks went into the Gibson Reserve, some into Oka, Kahnawake. Others lived in St. Regis on this side of the border, or on the American side. Some of the Onondagas came over here, others remained. Some of the Senecas and Cayugas went to Oklahoma. The Oneidas split up. Some came to London, some went to Wisconsin, some of the Mohawks went out West. This is the result of the war. Peace became weak because they are not united minds anymore.

What happened over the summer has been brewing up over the last couple of years. People don't want to practice peace because it's too boring. If you're at peace and someone comes along saying, "Here, I'll pay you so much money," that changes your mind altogether. And that's what the Warriors have been doing. They know it's bad, but it's that almighty dollar they're after.

A couple of years ago Kahnawake also wanted to raise some Confederacy Chiefs, and they didn't want anybody from anywhere else-only Six Nations-to do the ceremonies. Syracuse, Oka, Kahnawake, Akwesasne, Tonawanda, Deseronto, Cattaraugus-nobody can do it; it's only here at Six Nations that can do it. So they've got to go look for somebody who can do it. They wanted to get powerful, because they wanted to use the Confederacy. They don't have a Confederacy at Kahnawake, so they wanted to raise Chiefs there. It's been like this for several years now. One old Chief came down and wanted me to go up there and elevate Chiefs.

I said, "I can do it, but it's not legal. You have to go through the Confederacy before I can do it. It has to go through the right cha nels. The Cayugas of my nation have to approve it." Kahnawake wants to raise Chiefs because they know that's the only power there is, legally, because they're the ones who made treaties. And I guess they wanted to use that, more power for what they're after. But I told that guy it was illegal. "If you come the right way, it might be." But they didn't want to do it. They want to do everything underhanded. This man told me, "I got news for you. Kahnawake, the Warrior society, wants you to elevate Chiefs here. They're willing to offer you a million dollars to raise Chiefs, they're going to be asking you pretty soon if you will take that million dollars."

I suppose they think I'm going to jump just like the devil and accept it so quick. That money is evil. And once I accept, it'll change the whole thing. But it didn't happen. I can live without that much money. "Besides," I said, "people would hate me. I'd be a traitor to my people, for money."

Now how did it work during the summer? They used the Confederacy name to get their money. Last council, here a month ago, we stopped that. We decided to put in a press release right across Canada. People should know that the Confederacy is not asking for their money. But those Warriors use the Confederacy name, even Confederacy letterhead, so it looks like it's coming from the Confederacy, but it's never been approved at the Confederacy. So they're using all these names too, they're called Chiefs and none of them are Chiefs. I agreed with them, I said maybe it would be nice, maybe it is a good idea: Let's make everybody Chiefs, then we'll have no more Warriors.

We follow Handsome Lake. You have to have good peace of mind to follow Handsome Lake. They've been against that for a long time, because it's so strict, the Handsome Lake-very parallel with the Great Law. Handsome Lake is the code you live by-how you behave yourself in your daily life. This Great Law tells you about marriage and other things. To tell your children how to behave, you've got to use an example-yourself. That's the same thing with the Great Law; the Chief has to practice it. The people see what he is doing and they will follow his way, but if he's not practicing the right way then people are going to back away. But it's there; it tells you how to come together and love one another, starting from creation.

The European culture's different. They say man was first, but no, it's the woman that came first. How would it work if there's no woman? How's he going to have family? How's he going to populate the land? Got to have women first. This is why it refers to the women being here first. Even when the Prophet came, with the Great Law, it was always up to women, the Clan Mothers, to look after the blood line, because we follow the blood line of the women. Whatever clan they belong to, that's what the family follows. It's up to the women to elevate their Chief, and if the Chief does anything wrong, the women can depose him. The women have the whole power behind the Confederacy; it's not the men. When the Europeans came over here they saw our Constitution of the Five Nations, they didn't like that. They would not let a women be the head of a family. They had to follow the men, the paternal side

of the family.

John Bacher is an associate editor of PEACE Magazine and has been long involved in Native issues.

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1991

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1991, page 17. Some rights reserved.

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