The Iroquois never did submit to the white man and they still won’t give in. They won’t vote; they won’t take an oath of allegiance and they cling to the ancient Longhouse religion. Here’s an intriguing report on an unknown “republic” in the heart of OntarioEdna Staebler November 12 1955
The Iroquois never did submit to the white man and they still won’t give in. They won’t vote; they won’t take an oath of allegiance and they cling to the ancient Longhouse religion. Here’s an intriguing report on an unknown “republic” in the heart of OntarioEdna Staebler November 12 1955
OLD BOB HENHAWK was sitting on a log behind his unpainted little frame house, smoking his pipe. Hanging from the trees along the path to his frog pond were his scythe, a bucket without a bottom, some horseshoes, cow horns, a bunch of rusty wire and a rake. A breeze fluffed out the long grey hair that hung under his well-seasoned hat. His strong red-brown face was turned toward the rough gravel road that led into the Indian reserve from the smooth busy highway to Brantford, Ont., eight miles away.
“I hear they got some pretty good roads out there among the whites,” he told me as a passing car raised the dust. “Next thing they’ll be paving in here.” He drew on his pipe reflectively. “Never needed to pave in the old days; never had dust. Indian trails through the bush were narrow and clean.” He took his pipe from his mouth and leaned over to pull a fattening wood tick from the chest of his mongrel dog Nosey. “White fellow come in here one day and he said to me, ‘Ain’t you glad we civilized you? You got much more now than you had.’ ” He straightened his slender old shoulders. “I says to him, ‘The whites never beat us in a war but seems now like they think they bought us. All we want is our freedom.’ ”
Old Bob Henhawk is a chief of the Iroquois who not long ago were naked whooping savages the history books say burning, torturing, scalping and eating the flesh of their victims. They comprised the democratic League of Six Nations — Mohawks, Cayugas, Onondagas, Oneidas, Tuscaroras, Senecas — who lived together in peace and supported one another in war for more than four hundred years. They called themselves Men of Men, terrorized the French settlers in Canada and were supreme over all other Indians from Georgian Bay to Florida, east of the Mississippi.
Now their council fires have been stamped out. Their Longhouses of cedar bark have gone down - the Longhouse is a place of feasting and dancing for those who still worship their Creator in the Indian way. English has become the common tongue of the Six Nations whose six languages are as different from one another as German, French and Chinese. The white man has confined the proud Iroquois to reservations, small tracts of land set aside for their exclusive use in Ontario, Quebec and New York.
The reserve Chief Henhawk lives on with five to six thousand of his fellows is a plot of dismal farmland about twelve miles square beside the Grand River in southern Ontario. It is a small part of the tract gratefully given in 1784 by George III of England to the followers of Joseph Brant, the Iroquois war chief who had led his people into the War of American Independence to fight for the British. The grant was made as a recompense for the lands in the northeastern states that had belonged from time immemorial to the League of Six Nations and that Britain had ceded to the victorious Americans.
Soon after the Iroquois moved to the tract they had earned with their blood and their sacrifice, white settlers and land speculators from America and Britain came and encroached on the land. Some paid for their acres, some had land given to them by Joseph Brant, others just squatted. The country was flooded with illegal deeds but the courts upheld the white men and ignored the rights of the Indians who had no individual titles to property. When the Indians protested, Upper Canada in 1835 segregated them from the white men by forcing them to sell and surrender for little more than eight hundred thousand dollars all their grant except the timberless acres of what is now the reservation. This money is still held for them in trust by the federal government, with the interest being spent as the Indian Affairs branch decides. Canada administers the reserve in the same way as all other Indian reservations in the country, forgetting that the Six Nations have a treaty with Britain which calls them her allies, not subjects. Canada considers the Six Nations tract crown land: no one on it can get a clear title to property or borrow money to build or buy. The Indians are exempt from property taxes hut the interest on their own trust fund, they say, should be enough to keep up their roads, schools, hospital and other public services. Money earned on the reserve is exempt from income tax but only schoolteachers and a very few others can make enough there to benefit from the exemption; two thirds of the Indians commute to work in nearby cities and farms and have to pay tax on their incomes earned off the reserve. They pay all other taxes that Canadians pay.
Canada has tricked them and robbed them and broken their treaties, the Iroquois say. They claim Canada has no right to govern them at all and that their land is not a reservation but a sovereign state in North America, as Switzerland is a country in Europe. They write their own passports which are honored abroad.
As the unconquered Iroquois, they refuse to take oaths of allegiance to any land except the confederacy of the Six Nations. Their loyalty is unswerving. Even though some have lived and worked many years in faraway cities they call the Six Nations country their home and insist on being enumerated there when a census is taken.
Clinging to their past independence, old men like Chief Henhawk dream of the days when their fathers wandered free in the forest, where they hunted and fished while their wives hoed the corn. While most of those who work off the reserve buy cars and TV sets, can’t speak their tribal languages and can’t speed a snowsnake or swing a lacrosse stick, they brood on their glorious heritage. The ones who stay home on their poor little farms lament and protest and hope and stop hoping that they’ll prove they are still a great nation. One Iroquois, who is realistic and prosperous told me the sooner they become Canadians and have to give up the reserve the better it will be for all of them.
But the hereditary chiefs advise them not to accept the doubtful new privilege of voting in Ontario’s elections: it might lead to Canadian citizenship, land tax and the loss of their homes. They dread their absorption by the white man. Canada, they say, is a foreign power that threatens extermination of their proud race.
They send delegations to Ottawa to protest interference. They appeal to the courts as the white man keeps filching more of their land. They have presented their grievances to the League of Nations at Geneva, the San Francisco Conference and the United Nations Assembly, asking that they be freed from the dictatorship of Canada’s Indian Act which makes them wards of the government. They want complete freedom—their own laws, their own lands, their own money.
A treaty with the British crown gives them a different status from other Indians in Canada. At the end of the War of American Independence in which they fought valiantly for the British, they were dispossessed of their villages and their beautiful lake-spangled hunting grounds in Pennsylvania, New York and Ohio. To compensate them for their losses Britain gave to her "faithful allies” the lands of the Grand River valley, six miles deep on each side of the stream from its mouth at Lake Erie to its source one hundred and eighty miles inland, "for them and their posterity to enjoy forever.”
At the time of the grant, 1784, the Grand flowed through wilderness that no white man wanted. Now its fertile valley has four flourishing cities, Kitchener, Waterloo, Galt and Brantford, forty-odd towns and villages, some of the richest farms in Ontario and almost four hundred thousand white people. The lands of the Iroquois have shrunk to a plot of hard clay with marshes, scrub bush, a muddy creek too shallow to float a canoe and a ten-mile frontage on one side of the Grand.
The Six Nations reserve is a flat, dejected little island landlocked by lush hills and the bustle of industrial plenty. At its borders all paved highways end abruptly. (That’s how you know you are there.) The roads that divide it into one - and - a - half - mile squares are rough gravel or deeply rutted clay. The farms look less productive than those on the outside; barns are smaller and shabbier; there are fewer cattle and tractors; many fields are untended. About a quarter of a mile apart, or gathered together at the corners where they catch all the dust from the roads, are old one-room log houses, tar-paper shacks with a clutter of things around them, many neat little homes covered with asbestos shingle and some fair-sized brick houses or new ones of painted clapboard, ranch style. Scattered widely are garages and stores, fifteen grade schools, several brick churches, small stucco missions and four Longhouses of faded frame.
They Don’t Like Mounties
On crossroads near the centre of the reservation is the village of Ohsweken, the capital of the Six Nations country. There its parliament meets in the Council House, a small, white brick building that looks like an old township hall; on its broad shady lawn a memorial honors the hundreds of Iroquois braves who fought in two world wars as Canadians. There is a government-subsidized hospital, a co-operative agricultural building, an Orange Lodge hall and a funeral parlor. There is a new school equipped to teach home economics and industrial arts, the gift of Canada’s government, and a smaller grade school built by Six Nations funds. There are a few stores and houses, two churches and manses, the greatly resented quarters of the RCMP, and a friendly little restaurant with a bulletin board that announces when there is a bingo in Buffalo, N.Y., with bottles of whisky for prizes.
Ohsweken looks not unlike any sleepy Canadian hamlet except that most of the people who come there from all over the reservation have black hair, dark eyes and high cheekbones, small hands and small feet and skin that is swarthier than just a good tan. They dress like any rural Canadians. Their names might be Canadian: Hill, Green, Martin, Freeman, Jamieson, Anderson, Sky. They are Anglican, United Church, Baptist (no Roman Catholics), a smattering of Adventists or Mormons, and the twelve hundred who belong to the Longhouse and celebrate Christmas with gifts and a tree.
While I was visiting the reservation I boarded at the home of William Johnson, a Mohawk and Anglican, a veteran of World War I. He had a big garden out front and did odd jobs in the village. Mrs. Johnson made good rhubarb pie and fried pork chops and sighed about her weight. Their house, spotlessly clean and well-furnished, had electrical equipment but no running water.
Every day I was there I called on people in all parts of the Six Nations country. Though I was white and intruding with questions about Iroquois ways, I was always cordially welcomed. If I came too close to a mealtime the housewife put a plate on the table for me. "That’s how Iroquois does,” Chief Henhawk told me. "It is educated right into our children that girl, no matter if she’s a stranger, she’s your sister, and all old women is your mother, and same way with the men. Tecumseh dropped the poor Delawares here in 1813 and they ain’t left us yet and when the Mississaugas sold their land at Port Credit they asked shelter here for a day and a night; now they got five squares of our land.” The chief shrugged his shoulders, "We can’t put ’em out, they’re our brothers.”
I went often to call on Chief Henhawk. We sat in his scraggly woodlot near the outbuildings that were little more than boards leaning against one another. I sat on a chair he brought from his house and he sat on one he told me his daddy had made before he was born.
"I think the real old Indians must have been pretty nice people,” he said as he reached for a wood tick that had got down the back of his shirt. "They had not one blaspheming word in their language.” He cracked the insect between his fingernails, then drew peacefully again on his pipe. "Way back, maybe million years ago, all the leaders got together and they looked at the stars and the moon and the sun going round, and the rains came and they got the benefit of it and they thought there must be something makes things so good and they got the idea of a Creator. They knew the creator of good things must be good and they figured people should be good like that too. They never forgot it and they teached their young ones, and they teached theirs when they come along, and that’s how it was carried on through the years. Nothing wrote down. We just have to look around us to see it.” His eyes swept his bit of woodlot, his small shallow pond and the sky.
He then looked at me, shaking his shaggy old head. "But the whites keep trying to change it,” he said. "I was talking one day to a preacher. Asked me why I didn’t give up being pagan. He said it was a sin the way the Indians dance and feast at the Longhouse.
"I said to him, 'Now you got three children and sometimes you go into town. Perhaps some day you say, ‘‘Now this time I’m going to bring you all presents. I’ll bring this one a doll and that one a gun and the other some candy.” All day the children wait for you to come home and at four o’clock, say, you come and you give what you bought ’em.’ ” Chief Henhawk stood up, put his hands in the air and danced up and down. "You see,” he said, smiling, "the children are glad and they dance for joy and thanksgiving."
I said to the preacher, 'Are your children pagans?’ ”
All the Iroquois feasts are feasts of thanksgiving, Chief Henhawk told me. They give thanks for everything that grows in the woods and the fields. The biggest feast of the year, lasting five or six days, comes when the back of the winter is broken; then there is the feast of the maple sap, the planting of seed, the wild strawberry feast, feasts for peas, beans, green corn and pumpkins. "The chiefs start a feast by telling the people how to be good,” he explained. "They haven’t got the words ‘don’t do this, don’t do that’ to give people bad ideas. They just got the words for goodness.”
I called one day on Mrs. Alma Green who lived near Chief Henhawk in a house with a blue roof and a lean-to that sheltered her shiny red car. She told me any white person who stayed in the Six Nations country without permission of the council was a trespasser. She was a thin, grey-haired woman who had once been a teacher, a lumber-camp cook, a church organist, a reporter for the Toronto Star, and had six times gone to Ottawa to talk to men of high rank about the plight of her Indian people. She now commutes every day to Brantford where she punches a factory time clock.
In her living room there was a TV set, a cabinet full of china figurines, five cats, each asleep on a cushioned chair, a picture of long-skirted fair ladies in front of a castle and, on the wall above the sofa where she sat, a copy of the Lord’s prayer carved in wood.
"I am bitter,” she told me. "If I went outside this minute and saw your car and got into it and drove away because I had discovered it, would that make it mine?” Her dark eyes narrowed angrily. "That’s how the white man got our lands. We trusted him and he cheated us.”
The Chiefs Aren’t Boss
She went out of the room to fetch a leather briefcase and showed me copies of treaties the British had broken, letters that proved Iroquois lands had been stolen, and, emblazoned on buckskin, the wording of the treaty that gave the Six Nations the Grand River valley.
"Do you blame us for being mistrustful?” she asked. Then she told me that Canada, not content with depriving them of their lands, in 1924 had disbanded the council of hereditary chiefs that guarded the interests of the confederacy for over four hundred years and forced an elective system on the reserve. Twelve councilors and a chief councilor now seek election like the aldermen and mayor of a town. They meet regularly with the Indian agent at Ohsweken to administer the internal affairs of the reserve. "But they don’t represent our people,” Mrs. Green said. "Not ten percent vote; no Iroquois who is loyal to the Six Nations would vote for a man who must swear allegiance to the crown when he is elected.” She chased a cat that jumped up on the sofa beside her. "Occasionally a good, intelligent Indian goes into the council, but he isn’t given a chance. If he tries to do anything to better our ways he’s told to sit down and keep quiet or get out. He has to obey the Indian agent who gets his orders from Ottawa.” Mrs. Green frowned. "But our hereditary chiefs still meet in the Longhouses; they fight for our rights and tell us what to do.”
Mrs. Green put her papers back into her briefcase. "Of course I blame many injustices on Joseph Brant, our own leader. He was the only Iroquois in his time who could speak English, so he was appointed to deal with the British. They treated him like a king. He made decisions without consulting the chiefs, he led us into war, he brought us up here and, flattered by the white man, gave away lands that were not his to give. The white man called him a hero—you have seen his bronze statue in Brantford. He was noble in everything he did. But he betrayed his own people. And for that I could kick him in the pants.” Her foot jerked involuntarily.
"Brant was a Mohawk but he never learned the religion of his tribe. He was brought up by an Anglican minister and took Christianity so seriously that the British used him to convert his people. They listened to the missionaries and slid away from the Longhouse.” Her intense dark eyes stared straight ahead as she spoke. "Our forefathers prophesied that if we stepped into the white man’s canoe desolation would befall us,” she said solemnly. "That has come to pass. The Mohawk has no Longhouse now. Christianity has brought only sorrow. We are a lost people.” Mrs. Green’s daughter, a handsome girl wearing blue jeans and lipstick, passed through the room smiling.
"Sometimes I go to the Longhouses of the Onondagas, the Cayugas or the Senecas,” Mrs. Green went on. "I don’t need a new dress or new hat to go there. The people are humble and penitent; the old ones, so sincere, have no stain of sin. But I don’t understand their language, I don’t feel at home among them.” She held up her hands and looked from one to the other. "I am always between two fences.”
One sunny, warm morning I drove past the Onondaga Longhouse, a plain, low-gabled frame building with small-paned windows and not enough paint. Its only door was open and I stopped to look in. Two rows of benches stood round the pumpkin-yellow walls, at each end of the room was a round-bellied stove, and between them two long backless benches stood end to end with an oil lamp hanging above. A man was sweeping the unstained pine floor. He wore a red headdress with a single quill feather, a factory-made fringed buckskin jacket, colored beads around his neck, dark trousers with long black horsehair mane sewn into the side seams, a beaded belt and a handsomely decorated apron that hung front and back.
"Come in, come in,” he called when he saw me. "We’re having a dance here today. You’re welcome to stay if you want to.” He paused in his sweeping. "Not a worldly dance; it’s a feast to give thanks for the sun and the moon and the having of seed to be planted.”
He said the ceremony would begin at eleven o’clock, but no one arrived till past noon. More people came in their cars. They spoke to each other in the Cayuga language. The men wore plaid shirts or jerseys, old trousers or jeans, the women their best rayon dresses; two little boys had headdresses of feathers bought in the fifteen-cent store. A woman with a permanent explained to me that not many have Indian costumes to wear any more; they can’t get the buckskins and feathers of eagles.
At one-thirty we went into the Longhouse. All the women and little children sat at one end, the men and boys at the other. The man who had been sweeping the floor was standing at the men’s end preaching in dialect, his tones impassioned, pleading or monotonous. When he sat four other chiefs rose in turn, gave a high whooping call, chanted as they walked five paces forward and back to their benches.
During the hour that the preaching went on, more people wandered into the Longhouse till there must have been more than a hundred. Little children kept getting drinks of water from a dipper in a pail. Two large butcher’s baskets covered with bread paper were brought in and put on the floor near the stove at the women’s end of the room. Then a great iron kettle full of steaming grey corn soup, thick as library paste, was set down beside it.
The youngest chief dusted off one of the benches in the centre of the room and two men sat down facing each other. One shook a rattle of cow horn, the other beat a small drum. A line formed behind the chief wearing the beads and the feather, chiefs first, then men and boys, then women and girls, some carrying babies. The dance started slowly, not much more than a rhythmic shuffle with everyone looking serious. The man beat the drum somewhat faster. The rattler kept pace. The dance became lively. An old chief who had walked with a cane went back to his place on the benches. Two women, well over seventy, friskily raising their feet and their elbows, cavorting and laughing, seemed to infect the whole troop. The head chief waved his arms and stepped high, the children and young people stepped higher, a few kept on looking glum and just shuffling.
Soup in Honey Pails
The rattle and drum beat were hypnotic. More and more joined the dance. The circle widened till it went round the stoves instead of between them. Women passed their babies to grandmothers on the sidelines so they could dance with more verve. Round and round they went many times, to the throb of the drum and the rattle.
When they stopped, laughing and mopping their brows, they sat again on the benches. Two men took the large basket around and handed each person there a slice of unbuttered bread and a fat, spicy cookie. Then with a big ladle and dipper they filled the shiny tin honey pails that each woman had brought with the starchy soup from the kettle. Each family retrieved its own pail and dipped into it with a spoon or with bread. And the woman beside me smiled and generously offered to let me dip in with her.
Outside on the road I met Willie John, a Seneca, a spry seventy-nine. "The churches are losing their customers,” he told me. "They never git so many people out to meeting as come to the Longhouse.” We walked to the little house where he lived with another old war vet, a big man with one eye who didn’t say a word. They kept their place fairly tidy, cooked their own meals, and both wore their hats in the house.
"Couple times a year our chiefs preach our sermon,” Willie said as he sat by the stove. "It takes four days to say the whole thing, beginning at six in the morning and stopping when the sun is halfway up the sky. Not wrote down and all learned off by heart in verses like the Bible. Young chiefs teached by old chiefs.” Willie shook his head slowly. "Takes lots of learning. Iroquois scripture was give us by Handsome Lake, a chief of the Senecas. Round about 1800 he took out a hunting party one day and they went to the trading post and give skins for barrels of whisky, the first the braves ever had. They went back home in their canoes and got pretty wild, whooping and hollering and breaking down doors so their kids and wives got scared and ran away into the bush.
"When Handsome Lake noticed what a bad thing he done to his Indians he repented night and day for four year and at the end of that time four angels came and stood in the doorway with their feet off the ground and said they come from the Creator to take him on a trip.
"They took him along a wide road that went down to a building with no windows and so long they couldn’t see the end of it and inside they could hear people yellin’ something fierce like the devil was torturing them. The angels said, 'This is hell and the devil won’t let no one out of it.’
"And then they took Handsome Lake to a different road, real narrow with the traces of children on it leading to heaven. It was just like here only brighter, no night at all, and the angels says, 'Listen to this,’ and in a big building they were having religious sermons and dances, real lively. And the angels asked the chief was he thirsty and he said he believed he could drink and they give him a little dipper of water that kept filling up the more he drank out.
"And on the way home they told him how to make medicine and to be kind to the aged and never strike children, and if your husband strays take him back without anger, don’t gossip or listen to gossip and all the things that are in the Longhouse sermon. And the angels told Handsome Lake to go round and preach it to all the Indians. He preached for the rest of his life and that’s what all the Iroquois Longhouses believes in,” Willie John said. "It’s not pagan, not idolatry like the white people say, it’s pure Protestant religion, will take you to heaven when you die, if you live by it.”
I spoke to many of the Iroquois about the Longhouse religion. In those who were Christian I sensed a consciousness of superior enlightenment but also a trace of nostalgic envy of those of their race who had kept the faith of their fathers and remained truly Indian. They told me that the people of the Longhouse were the best living people among them, sincere, kindly, sure; and schoolteachers said the Longhouse children were the best-behaved pupils, respectful and honest. Josephine and Sylvanus General, a young Christian Mohawk couple, said they’d like their son Joe to go back to the Longhouse.
I spent a day with the Generals. Josephine called Sylvanus from the potato patch and we sat by the pump and chatted till too many caterpillars fell on us from the tree overhead and Josephine invited me to come into the house, "if you don’t mind the chickens in the kitchen.”
Sylvanus was a big man with plump cheeks and a slow, lazy smile; he farms and writes poetry. Josephine, tiny and bright, with a pony tail and slant-eyed spectacles, told me she was a city Indian, born in Buffalo, N.Y.
Their house is the oldest on the reserve and they love it. Made of red pine logs two feet square, it has one big room downstairs and up, plus a lean-to. Josephine wants a new floor because it is cold in the winter; she talks too of adding French doors and a porch, but they haven’t got round to it yet. They’ve been there eight years and can’t make up their minds if they want to stay or build a new place where they wouldn’t get so much dust from the road. They can’t get a mortgage or loan to help them finance it because the reserve is crown land.
Are Whites Too Cunning?
They don’t feel secure; any day the government might take the reserve away from them—it often has tricked them before—so why go to a lot of trouble fixing a place up, only to lose it? They live one day at a time, they say, and don’t worry about the next one, but they talk about it incessantly.
They constantly contradict themselves. One minute they say they live like kings, have privileges that the poor whites can’t enjoy; next minute they are miserable slaves under Canada’s Indian Act. They say no Indian can go out into the white man’s world and cope with his cunning, then they boast that many of their people have left the reserve to become rich, doctors and lawyers and one a brigadier. Josephine was brought up a Roman Catholic, Sylvanus an Anglican; now they both think they’d like to belong to the Longhouse. But they’ve had too much education to believe in Longhouse witchcraft or medicine rites. So what should they do?
Josephine set the kitchen table for lunch. With the chicks peeping in their corner we ate canned corn and beans, bread and butter, sardines, store doughnuts and cookies with pink marshmallow icing while they apologized for not giving me real Indian food -corn soup that takes a day to prepare, corn bread, heavy but nourishing, delicious corn cakes and pudding or sweet corn steamed in the husks.
We were still drinking tea at the table when Joe, a handsome boy of eight, came home after school with his friend Gordie Buck carrying a rattle of cow horn. Without any prompting Gordie sat on the edge of a chair and said, "Fish dance.” Then he sang a weird, wordless Indian song and kept time with the rattle while Joe solemnly danced in a circle. "War dance,” Gordie commanded and Joe’s antics changed. Buffalo dance, Women’s dance, False Face dance followed, the children performing them seriously and without any words. Sylvanus, watching, said dreamily he’d like to open a school to teach Iroquois dances and languages.
"But how can you, Sylvanus?” Josephine asked. "You can’t dance and you only know English.” She sipped her tea daintily. "I’d rather sell Indian handicrafts to get money to build a stone fireplace.”
Sylvanus smiled his slow, lazy smile.
It is hard to earn money on the reserve, he told me, for there is no kind of industry. It isn’t in the Indian’s nature to be greedy and competitive like the white man: he longs only for the wisdom of understanding and the betterment of his soul.
Old Ezekiel Hill got enough money from his bead work to buy a tiny log house for fifty dollars and have it moved up near the Seneca Longhouse. The plaster came out of the chinks in the moving and it let in the wind, but he stopped it up on the inside and it wasn’t too bad in the winter if he kept covered with blankets. He wondered at first what he’d do for water and wood because he couldn’t get out of his wheelchair except to roll himself onto his bed but a neighbor came every other day and looked after him so he had nothing to worry about outside of his rheumatism.
Ezekiel rummaged in the boxes on the table with the remains of his breakfast and supper to show me the bead work he did with his crippled hands when he felt like it. There were belts with Union Jacks and American flags, headbands and necklaces with flowers or the words Mother’s Day worked into them. “But nobody round here wants bead stuff no more,” Ezekiel told me. "Only tourists sometimes comes in and buys ’em. Everything’s changing from what it were. Indians is wearing underwear now, even the old folks. Days gone by people didn’t work hard, they just lay around and they always had plenty. They made axe handles and baskets that they traded for food. Now just a few know how to make ’em. They used to go out and cut poles if they felt for it, then come in and sit or play games by the creek. Nowadays they get into cars and go into town to the pictures.
"Can’t play snowsnake on the roads any more with cars running round,” Ezekiel sighed. He leaned far over in his wheelchair to search in the piles of odd things on the floor. He pulled out a snowsnake, a slim, steel-tipped stick, highly polished, that is speeded along a track in the snow for perhaps half a mile if icing conditions are favorable and a man’s arm strong and skilful.
"Nowadays kids can’t play round like we used to, they got to go to school every day and get such learning put in their heads they got no room for their Indian language.” Ezekiel shook his white head. He never learned how to read or to write. He went to school when he felt like it—about one day a month.
Now all the Six Nations children go regularly by bus to the fifteen schools on the reserve, each child to the school that teaches his own grade. The books, bus fares and teachers’ salaries are paid for by the federal government. One hundred and fifty pupils are taken every day to the high schools in the nearest town where they learn to mingle with white people and often surpass them in academic results. All the teachers on the reserve are Indians who hold first-class certificates and use the Ontario Public School curriculum with an extra bit of Indian history.
"It isn’t easy for us to teach our history from the school textbooks,” I was told by Reg Hill, a soft-voiced Indian teacher who graduated from Upper Canada College. "The source material was written by our enemies, the French. When they attacked us they were at war, when we attacked them it was a massacre. They called us bloodthirsty savages, not braves fighting for our lives and our lands.” Reg Hill said the white man has never written the truth about the Iroquois. The French maligned them. The British have never given them their due. The Iroquois held the balance of power that won Canada from France; Canada would have been lost to the Americans in the war of 1812 if the Iroquois hadn’t defended it.
"I’m always especially annoyed at having to teach that Brock, the British general, was the hero of Upper Canada at the Battle of Queenston Heights,” the schoolteacher said. "He was a defeated leader. He led his men into an open field and ordered them to climb an unscalable cliff while the Americans fired at them from above; his soldiers fled and t he battle was lost. It was the Iroquois, spearheading the Canadian militia of pioneers, who routed the Americans and saved Canada for itself.”
Another teacher irked by textbook history was Miss Emily General, with dark hair a yard long, a sister of Sylvanus. She once traveled to Europe on a Six Nations passport and studied Iroquois records in England. She taught school for twenty years on the reserve but was asked to resign because she wouldn’t take the oath of allegiance to Canada that all teachers were required to take in 1947. Now she raises turkeys and pigs and produces the Indian pageant each year in the Great Pine Forest Theatre at the back of her mother’s farm.
The pageant re-enacts the life of an Iroquois hero or some phase of Iroquois history, this year Handsome Lake, the Seneca prophet revered by the Longhouse, and Pauline Johnson, the poet of the Six Nations Reserve. Everyone who has buckskins and feathers is asked to take part and they all do so freely and happily because it helps to keep real and alive the traditions of the confederacy.
Emily General is fiercely jealous of the sovereignty of her nation. She believes, as do most of her people, that their Creator gave the Iroquois a big space to live in and it wasn’t to be bartered or sold. The people of the present generation are only custodians of the lands of those not yet born.
But what heritage have they left to pass on to their children, the Iroquois ask as they look at their flat meagre country with the dust rising thick on the roads. Will the greedy white man who covets all that he sees deprive them even of that? The Iroquois believe so. They live with their fears, their cars and TV sets, and their dreams of the green wooded hills and the lakelands that their fathers had before them. But they’ll keep on fighting for their rights. The Iroquois haven’t been conquered.
On my way off the reserve I stopped to say good-by to Chief Henhawk. He was sitting on his little back stoop with a note pad on his knee on which he was laboriously writing. He smiled when he saw me. "You’re just in time to give me a hand with this here,” he said.
"What is it?” I asked him.
"I’m writing a letter to the Queen. I’m asking her to give us back our freedom.”