Irving Powless’ talk on Onondagas and European settlers has wit and sting
By Mike McAndrew
A stroke cost Irving Powless the full use of his left arm, but it didn’t rob him of his wit.
In an off-the-cuff lecture that lasted more than two hours Tuesday night, the Onondaga Nation chief spun one colorful story after another, leaving a Syracuse Stage audience of about 250 people frequently chuckling as he talked about how Native Americans have suffered since Columbus arrived.
“The Europeans came up the Hudson River and settled in our house. At the time, we didn’t have immigration laws,” Powless mused, the trace of a smile on his face.
Most of Powless’ stories had a barbed edge under the humor.
“I was in a barnyard the other day and I didn’t see the duck trying to turn the chicken into a duck,” the 76-year-old chief said. “This is what Christianity has been trying to do with us.”
Powless noted traditional Onondagas still follow the ways of the Longhouse, celebrating the same ceremonies and singing the same songs their ancestors sung thousands of years ago.
The lecture, called “The Onondaga Nation Encounters European Settlers,” featured Powless and Cornell University senior lecturer Robert Venables.
The Onondaga Nation filed a land claim suit against New York in March 2005, claiming ownership of a 40-mile-wide swath stretching from the Thousand Islands to Pennsylvania.
Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation and the Syracuse Peace Council are sponsoring a yearlong lecture series to educate the public about Onondaga land rights.
Thursday was one of Powless’ first public speeches since he suffered a stroke a year ago that initially left him unable to speak and paralyzed on his left side. He sat in a wheelchair throughout the event. But his voice and message were clear.
He held up the Two Row Wampum Belt, the white-and-purple beaded belt the Haudenosaunee used to record its 1613 treaty with New York’s Dutch settlers.
“We hear that our treaties (with the United States) are 200 years old. Well, the Constitution is 200 years old, too. You can’t cast that aside because it’s 200 years old,” he said.
A chief for 35 years, Powless also recalled his involvement in the Onondagas’ battle with New York when the state tried to widen Interstate 81 on the Onondaga territory without permission from the Indian nation.
In contrast to Powless’ meandering stories, Venables provided a forceful rat-a-tat recitation of key dates in Onondaga Nation history, beginning with the formation of the Haudenosaunee, the confederacy of six Native nations, in 1142.
The Cornell historian spoke with anger about the colonial Americans’ attack on Onondaga villages in 1774, during which, he said, soldiers gang-raped and killed Onondaga women.
The Onondagas’ oral version of their history is backed up by documents written by whites during the last 400 years, said Venables, whose book, “American Indian History: Five Centuries of Conflict and Coexistence” was recently published.