By Sarah Moses
ONONDAGA NATION — Family, friends and Onondaga Nation leaders said the loss of Chief Irving Powless Jr., is a huge loss to the Onondaga Nation, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and the outlying communities.
Powless died Thursday. (November 30, 2017). He was 88.
“I think one thing that people don’t realize is how dedicated the chiefs have to be in order to fulfill their duties,” said Beverly Powless, his sister. “I think that my brother really outdid himself. He did so much for our community. I’m proud of him.”
Chief Powless’ role on the Onondaga Nation Council of Chiefs began in the 1970s. As Beaver Clan chief, he became an expert in Haudenosaunee and Onondaga treaties, and he shared his knowledge with nation members and those outside of the community for nearly five decades.
“I know he dedicated his life to this nation,” said Clan Mother Wendy Gonyea. “We’re grateful for all those years that he gave to us. He taught us a lot. He’s going to be missed.”
Chief Powless was a scholar, author, teacher, lacrosse player, veteran, protector of the environment and so much more to his community.
“He’s touched thousands of lives in CNY,” said Onondaga Nation Attorney Joe Heath. “The loss is just huge, not just for the nation, but for the entire confederacy.”
Chief Powless served as secretary of the Onondaga Council of Chiefs for more than 30 years and was an avid historian of his people. He received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree in 2009 from Syracuse University.
He was an expert in the nations’ treaty rights and used that knowledge to fight New York State to establish the non-taxable status of the Haudenosaunee.
His son, Neal Powless, said his father was proud of his accomplishments in winning the taxation fight. Chief Powless also worked tirelessly on land claim issues and fought to protect sovereignty for the Haudenosaunee.
“He was an eloquent speaker,” Neal Powless said. “He wanted to spread the message of his people.”
Neal Powless said his father was eager to educate Onondaga Nation youth, but also openly educated the non-Native public.
“You’re visitors in our land and you don’t know who you visited,” Neal Powless recalls his dad saying.
Heath, the nation’s attorney, said Chief Powless was his teacher.
“He was my mentor,” Heath said. “I learned so much from him.”
Historian Robert Venables has been close friends with Chief Powless since they met in the 1970s.
“I had my Ph.D in history and when I met Irv I was sure I knew everything there was to know about Native Americans and their relationship with whites,” Venables said. “Irv was gracious in 1971 and I proceeded to learn that I was wrong.”
nd after nearly five decades of friendship, Venables said there was something else that he learned.
“Irv was always right,” he said. “I was fortunate to have known him.”
Chief Powless is survived by his daughter, Nancy Powless and sons, Barry, Bradley (JoAnne), Neal (Michelle), two sisters, Phyllis Farmer, Beverly Powless. He has 10 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren and several nieces and nephews.
He is predeceased by his wife, Helen Powless, and brothers, Hubert and Everett Powless.
To his family, Chief Powless was a loving and supportive father and grandfather, who was quick with a joke and never let you forget that one time he knocked down the great Jim Brown with the hip check in a lacrosse game, said Neal Powless.
“He had a dry humor and he was always joking,” Neal said. “His favorite joke was the one that he laughed at but no one else laughed at.”
He encouraged his children to get an education and he always supported their dreams.
“The greatest gift that he gave me was the gift to dream,” Neal said. “And a faith that everything was going to work out.”
Chief Powless’ list of accomplishments are diverse and impressive.
He’s a member of the CNY Chapter Lacrosse Hall of Fame and was a founder and lacrosse player for the Onondaga Athletic Club. He served in the U.S. Navy alongside his brother, Everett Powless, on the USS Randolph. He retired from Conrail in 1989 after 30 years of service.
“He always pushed us to be better,” Neal said. “I’ll miss him. I’ll miss his knowledge. He gave us the path to make our own dreams come true.”
Calling hours will take place at his home on Hemlock Road on the Onondaga Nation Friday and Saturday. Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. Sunday, December 3, 2017, at the Onondaga Nation Longhouse.