Oren Lyons, Onondaga

Oren R. Lyons is Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation, one of the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee (people of the Long House) whose territory once encompassed most of New York, Pennsylvania, and part of Ohio in the United States and Ontario and Quebec in Canada. Also known as the Iroquois Confederacy, the Six Nations includes the Onondaga, Mohawk, Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, and Tuscorara nations. The Haudenosaunee form of government is based on a more than 1,000-year-old oral constitution called the Great Law of Peace, whose democratic ideals, some historians say, served as inspiration for the framers of the US Constitution.

Oren Lyons photophoto Eric Weiss

Chief Lyons was raised on the Onondaga and Seneca reservations in upstate New York. After a brief stint in the Army, he went to Syracuse University to study fine arts. At Syracuse, Lyons was an All-American athlete in lacrosse, the traditional sport of his people (the Onondaga call it the “Creator’s Game”). He later helped establish the Iroquois Nationals, a lacrosse team representing all the Six Nations, whose team members travel on Haudenosaunee passports to assert their sovereignty. Lyons pursued a successful career in commercial art in New York City until 1970, after which he returned to the Onondaga reservation and became a leading voice for Native American rights. In 1977, Lyons was part of an historic Indigenous delegation that brought the demand for recognition of Indigenous peoples to the United Nations. He wrote the preamble to Basic Call to Consciousness (1978) – the landmark book documenting this event. His 40 years of campaigning at the UN culminated in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. A former professor of American studies at State University of New York, Buffalo, and author of numerous books, 85-year-old Lyons has received many honors and awards and is a sought-after international lecturer on Native American history, human rights, and the environment. The veteran leader recently took the time out to answer questions crowd-sourced from the greater Native American community.

I remember your book, Basic Call to Consciousness, sitting on my parents’ bookshelf. I remember looking at the pictures of the Indigenous delegates attending in their traditional clothes. I saw the picture of you traveling with your Haudenosaunee passport entering West Germany. It had a huge impact on me as a young Navajo/Dakota kid growing up in suburbia, by placing my identity in an international sphere. Can you tell me about that first United Nations meeting of Indigenous leaders from the Western Hemisphere?

It was the first opportunity we had to take our issues to an international tribunal. These included problems we had with the United States not living up to its treaty promises. We were trying to find a venue that would address that. The issue of the Native people is buried and it is not discussed in history books so Native people are a mystery to American people. The only information they get is from the movies. They don’t get it in schools. So we were really being disappeared.

We couldn’t get a hearing here in the US, so we went to Geneva. And we went to Geneva at the invitation of the International NGOs that were working with the United Nations in Geneva. We had a delegation of 130 people, 146 … I’m not sure anymore. Delegates from Central, South, and North America. Sami people from Sweden as well.

We had a formal reception from the mayor of Geneva. At that time he asked a question: “Is Deskaheh here?” Deskaheh is a Cayuga chief’s title. Deskaheh was Six Nations from Ohsweken, Ontario and had gone to Geneva [in 1923] to lay charges against Canada for physically removing the traditional leadership from the Long House. He couldn’t get to the League of Nations where he wanted to address this, but the [then] mayor of Geneva said he could go to this very large meeting place that they had in Geneva and he could make his case there, and he did. At that time, a small boy, maybe 8 or 10 years old, tugged on his pant leg and [Deskaheh] stopped to talk to him for a time. The mayor said, “I was that little boy and he showed great kindness to me. So when I heard you were being held up at the frontier because of your passports, I got you through. That’s why I asked if Deskaheh was there.” We told the mayor: He is not here but he has sent a message. We read the message and we gave the mayor a gostowa, our traditional headdress. When we went there [to Geneva] we didn’t know what to expect. We certainly didn’t expect this reception.

We didn’t address the UN assembly but a smaller council on NGOs. But it was Deskaheh who opened the door in 1923 and he opened the door again in 1977. We were invited back again the following year and the following year and thus began our process to become part of the UN.

By 1982, they established the Working Group for Indigenous Populations. We didn’t know why they didn’t say “Indigenous Peoples,” but for us it was still a very strong move. We found out we were not included with the human beings. And that went back to 1493, when the pope issued a papal bill [the Doctrine of Discovery] declaring there were no Christian nations in this new land and declared our lands empty, terra nullis. They applied it to Africa and they applied it to us as well. We didn’t have the right to title of the land – only occupancy. The same right as a rabbit or a deer or a buffalo. So we were put in a category that was not fully, legally human and we never knew it. So when they found an appellate for us it was the Working Group for Indigenous Populations. Populations do not have human rights, and issues do not have human rights.

In 2000, we became the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. They didn’t say “people” they said “issues.” So now, when we meet every spring they still call the forum “Issues.” Interesting question to call them and see why that still persists. In 2007, the UN finally adopted the rights outlined in UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and, for the first time, we became human.

Going back 32 years from that 1977 meeting to 1945, my mother-in-law – who is from the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario – told me a story about how her father, Melvin Johnson, the Mohawk Bear Clan chief, went to the very first UN meeting at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco after World War Two. He and other Six Nations leaders had traveled all the way from Ontario on their own dime, but when they tried to enter the meeting they were told the Iroquois Nation was not on the list and they were denied entry. So they went outside the hotel and wondered what they should do. They decided, since they had come all this way, to try again. This time the guy admitted them because he thought they said they were from Iraq, not Iroquois. Funny story, but a kind of painful one, too.

It really is an illustration of how the American people have not been told about our history and who we are. I retired in 2008 as a history professor at SUNY Buffalo. I can tell you I had to start from scratch with many of my students. We had to write our own history books just to teach them our history.

In the UN, you have a number of nations and everyone has their own agenda. And part of that agenda is land, and Indigenous people are a problem because we have prior rights to the land. We thought we were going to a place where justice was prevailing. I call it the “Land of Oz.” We went to see the wizard and we were very much like Dorothy thinking that there was truth and equity and justice, and we ran into the very same people we had come away from.

Do you still travel with your Haudenosaunee passport?

Yeah, I just came back from Australia. Left on the twenty-second of May. Returned June fifth. Traveling on my passport. It’s still a Haudenosaunee passport based on treaties. We have signed treaties with George Washington.

My cousin, Kimball Bighorse, who is Navajo and Cayuga, wanted me to ask about the Iroquois Nationals and if they would play in the Olympics if lacrosse is admitted.

That’s the discussion at the moment. But it will be. Lacrosse will be added in 2024 or 2028. There is tremendous effort to move it into international sports. We, of course, expect to be playing there, but whether they accept us or not is another question. And it comes down to the passports. Many [countries] have been coerced into caving to the US policy of denying us entry with our passports. Six Nations is the last Indigenous country in America. We have treaty rights and we exercise our rights as sovereign nations internationally. We don’t have any BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] here and we don’t accept any federal funds. Only the treaty money. It is hard because we are a poor people but we have always been able to sustain ourselves.

The Iroquois Nationals are a flagship. They carry the issues of democracy, of sovereignty, of the environment. We are still here.

A question from my friend Mishuana Goeman (Seneca), a professor at University of California, Los Angeles: “As a Confederacy, how might we deal with murdered and missing [Indigenous] women?” [Note: Indigenous women have the highest rates of murder and rape in the United States and Canada.]

Of course, it’s horrendous. It’s part of our long history. In 1900 the US census for Native people was 250,000. Originally [our population was] 16 million. So the question remains what happened to 15.9 million Indigenous people? It’s a question no one wants to answer. The genocide of Indigenous women is a continuation of that. They don’t value our people, our women. There is no protection under the law. We’re an unprotected species.

A question from Kayla Devault (Shawnee) a graduate student at Case Western Reserve: “I would be interested in what he thinks about the US adopting UNDRIP. I don’t think they are implementing it at all. Also, Canada had no comments regarding Indigenous relations. I assume because they are equally guilty.”

The US did not adopt the declaration. If you look at Obama’s 16-page statement, [it says] the US “supports” the declaration. That’s a whole lot different than adopting it. He said the declaration is an “aspiration.” He fudged it all the way. Same way with Canada. Australia, on the other hand, adopted it with an apology. And New Zealand.

They [the Obama administration] said they would agree with it in as far as it agrees with their present laws. We went to Geneva in 1977 because their law is not fair. Simply because it is the law doesn’t mean it is just. Nazi Germany had a lot of laws but you couldn’t call them just. At the end of the day we are still facing the adversary we started out with. And we should not be adversaries because we have signed treaties as allies. But they don’t want us as allies; they want us as subjects.

The last time I was in Geneva I asked how many were here from 1977. There were five of us that stood up. Not many of us left from that generation. This is why I am taking the time to speak to you. Your generation will carry on this work that has been my life’s work. There is an article in UNDRIP that states we have the right to self-determination. And that’s what they [the US and Canada] fought us on all these years – self-determination.

We [Six Nations] don’t accept the US idea of what they will allow us to be – “dependent domestic nations.” One of the ways we fight this is we don’t take their money. We are not beholden and they don’t have leverage on us. Many, many Indigenous people are isolated and they don’t have support. And we have very little of the land left. But land is the issue; it has always been the issue. It’s a difficult fight and we make no judgments on anyone. We just do the best we can to work with the Creator. Respect each other and keep our ceremonies.

Subscribe Now

For $15 you can get four issues of the magazine, a 50 percent savings off the newsstand rate.