By Santee and Summer Frazier
The Communications office receives calls from all over the world by people interested in Native people and their cultures, often asking if Onondaga provides guided tours or if there is some kind of show the nation puts on for tourists. They want to come and look at the “Indians” to reinforce their notions as to what and who Native Americans are, they want to see us dance around in feathers, and invite them to a sweat lodge so they can purify themselves. In many instances the calls are offensive, and the person calling fails to understand that there is a difference between the representations of “Indianess” they have seen in movies, and how we actually live.
About a month ago we received a similar call, but this time it was from a Maori choir who was visiting the United States and wanted to come and visit the Onondaga Nation. So Sue Lyons arranged that they come and she would show them around the nation (not necessarily a guided tour). A few of us at the office were familiar with Maori culture, what we had seen in movies, (Once Were Warriors, Whale Rider, etc…), we knew their culture was similar to that of many Native Nations from here in the U.S., this combined with their experiences with European Colonialism. They are a proud, tough people who still practice their traditional ways, and who also have been fighting the New Zealand government for their land rights. In fact one of the primary reasons they wanted to visit was based on Onondaga’s reputation concerning land rights and environmental activism.
So, on the morning of October 2, they came pulling up on a charter bus, there were about 30 people not all of whom were of Maori heritage, it was raining, a bit chilly, and the autumn leaves were peaking with color. The first stop on the tour was ONS, with Sue Lyons eloquently explaining the origins and architecture of the school. There was lots of awe when she explained the school was constructed in a shape resembling that of an eagle in flight. It was also at the school that we learned the Maori equivalent to shaking hands, which is pressing noses. So instead of shaking hands each person places their hands on the shoulders of the person in front of them, then leaning in until the their foreheads and noses touch at which time both participants take in what the Maori call “the breath of life.”
Even though we have a few requests for a smoke shop visit, the next stop on the tour was the buffalo field, which generated a good measure of excitement being that none of the visitors had ever seen a buffalo in real life. So when we arrived Bo Bo hitched a wagon to their tractor and off we went to pasture to see the herd up close. Barring a few mishaps along the ride—a minor collision into a wood structure and a couple of non-Maori group members getting bumped out of the wagon—the safari was a huge success. A few of the ladies, at the risk of their own peril, actually got out of the wagon to see the buffalo up close.
After we all exited the wagon we were treated to a song. Remember, these folks are members of a professional choir who were performing at several places here in the U.S., so when those of us from the Communications office and the community at large took in their performance (a song), in the rain no less, we were amazed. The Song represented the group asking for permission to pass through Onondaga. Truly a special moment, one not easily forgot.
After the song Vince Johnson’s brother Bo Bo stated to the group: “You are always welcome here.” After which someone said: “Don’t say that, ’cause we will be here every day”, which in turn brought the group to laughter. This reciprocation, this action, amounted to a show of respect, the Maori asking to be here, and Bo Bo welcoming them, A gesture common among indigenous cultures.
After we left the buffalo field, we continued on to the Gibson waterhole, where the Maori filled up the water bottles, and headed back on the bus for the next to last stop on the tour, the cook house. Seeing how we deprived our visitors of an access to restroom faculties when we all arrived at the cook house there was a huge line to the bathroom. This time was also used for the trading of gifts and contact information. Being that this visit was last minute and planned as such, those of us showing the Maori around did not get a chance to organize a proper tour. So those who participated rushed around to find something to give to our guests that were representative of their time spent on Onondaga.
The Maori people were not here to watch a performance, or the see the Indian show. They came to create community, to see how other indigenous people live.