A Native University: An Idea Rooted in the Formation of the Iroquois Confederacy

A Native University: An Idea Rooted in the Formation of the Iroquois Confederacy

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December 11, 2015

The idea of a center for the preservation, learning and teaching of indigenous knowledge in a formal setting is something as old as the Iroquois Confederacy.

When Skennenrahowi began his work to create an alliance of human nations based upon the principles of Peace, Power and the Good Mind he did to restrict his vision to those people who lived south of Lake Ontario, west of the Hudson River, north of the Susquehanna or east of the Niagara Falls. He wanted all human beings who desired to live in a permanent condition of peace with each other and the natural world to learn how to do so.

Skennenrahowi used powerful images which could be understood by everyone: a great tree connecting earth and sky, four shining white roots, a bundle of arrows, a war club, five pine needles, the antlers of a deer, one single bowl, a wooden spoon and water animal shells strung together-things which are found, in various forms, in most places on the earth.

His words were meant to be preserved but also to be shared. His political theories and concepts designed to enhance understanding and to lead to the formation of a planetary alliance network meant to outlaw warfare and liberate human potential beyond the limits of personal and collective violence.

Skennenrahowi gave the Iroquois the task of sharing his plans with anyone who wanted to learn. By following the white roots of peace nations and individuals were to be given the resources, physical security and instructions as to how to achieve harmony. In effect, he wanted a place where we could learn from each other and therefore created one, beneath the Great Tree of Peace, on the eastern shores of Onondaga Lake.

But each of the original members of the world’s oldest confederacy had a duty to insure the knowledge seekers were also treated with respect and were guaranteed their safety. Each nation, and its citizens, were bound under the “single bowl” rule to share their natural resources meaning food, clothing and shelter.

We know from our history that our ancestors have taken this obligation seriously. We know that advocates for the Confederacy have travelled great distances to teach while inviting students to our lands for additional instruction. We know dozens of nations and tens of thousands of people have taken advantage of this opportunity and found refuge within our ever expanding longhouse. We know our open immigration policies have meant thousands of people born of other nations have been granted Iroquois citizenship and, as Skennerahowi designed, become vital contributors to the strength and survival of the Confederacy.

There has also been a movement to physically create schools in which students of all backgrounds may come to share and to learn. It was the dream of the Oneida-Conestoga Pine Tree Chief Shenandoah (also known as John Skenando) to establish such a college in the 1790’s. He was able to do so with the help of the American patriot the Rev. Samuel Kirkland and in 1793 they created the Hamliton-Oneida Academy which became Hamiltion College. Sadly, there has been virtually no interaction with the Iroquois since the school was re-charted in 1812 but the idea persists.

In the 20th century others have also tried. Ernie Benedict with the North American Travelling College and later Manitou College. Cayuga Chief Jake Thomas with the Iroquois Institute and the late Dr. John Mohawk in partnership with Buffalo State. Ron Lafrance, a former sub-chief with the Mohawk Nation, brought traditional knowledge to Cornell University and a strong group of Iroquois-Anishnabe leaders did the same with Trent University in Peterborough.

In 1972 St. Lawrence University hosted an historic session designed to change the manner in which indigenous students were taught as to how best serve the needs of the Native nations. The recommendations were this: that if Native students were to succeed and Native culture to be preserved it had to be done in a place where Native people designed, administered and taught in those subject areas deemed, by their own definition, essential to them.

The St. Lawrence University conclusions lead naturally to the idea of a degree granting institution with a curriculum open to all, one which uses contemporary technologies to teach and a place where the physical and intellectual patrimony of Natives can be preserved for all time. We need an Iroquois University or whatever else it may be called.

In 2011 the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge was created after Syracuse University examined its Native Studies courses and the first phase of the Haudenosaunee Promise. Chancellor Nancy Cantor concluded much more could be done to make SU the center for indigenous knowledge. Studies affirmed the need for such an institution and the enormous potential in terms of possible students: over 1.3 million Native people now live in the US east of the Mississippi yet with one exception in Michigan, there is no aboriginal college, no place like the Institute of the American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, no place to get a degree in an Iroquois language, no place to study Native sciences, aboriginal law, the fine arts. Nothing in the east.

So the Hiawatha Institute designed a curriculum, created an inclusive proposal, drafted a budget-everything one would need to establish a working Native college. Unfortunately, Dr. Cantor left SU and the plans were put on hold.

Two weeks ago this idea, Skennenrahowi’s idea, was discussed at SUNY Canton to great enthusiasm. All of this means that an aboriginal college/university is inevitable either as a stand alone school or one which works in partnership with another. That is the challenge before our nations and is perhaps the best thing we can do to insure our fulfillment of Skennenrahowi’s most sacred of instructions.

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