Iroquois believe survival’s at stake in passport dispute

By Samantha Gross
Onondaga Nation, New York (AP) August 2010

A group of young men have gathered in the longhouse for the feather dance, and the sounds of their singing filter outside, where Mohawk Chief Howard Thompson sits.

His people call him Onerekowa, the name his predecessors have borne for a thousand years. Each month, when he gathers with the 49 other chiefs from the six Haudenosaunee nations, he stands to speak in the language of his ancestors. And when the 50 come to a decision, they don’t take a majority vote. Instead, as it has for a millennium, the leaders of the Iroquois Confederacy decide by consensus.

Today Thompson awaits the start of a meeting of the Haudenosaunee Peace and Trade Committee, where tradition will grapple with the outside world. The issue is passports.

Last month, the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team missed their world championship in Britain rather than travel overseas under U.S. or Canadian passports. Their Haudenosaunee passports were deemed inadequate in a post-9/11 world – partly handwritten, lacking in high-tech security features.

Haudenosaunee Documentation Committee chairman Karl Hill peers fiercely from behind wire-rimmed glasses as he explains how the confederacy has spent upward of $1 million to bring their identification into line with the U.S. government’s new standards. For now, the handwritten Haudenosaunee passports can still be easily counterfeited, he says.

But, he adds, that would never be reason enough for the lacrosse players to travel on another nation’s document. Such a choice would be a betrayal of their national identity – an identity he says is as valid as ever, even though his people shop in American malls and watch American television and study at American colleges.

We are a nation, he insists, and it matters.

“It means that we’ve survived,” he says.

“The fact that we’re still here is a testament to our survival. Now why on earth would we give that up and call ourselves U.S. citizens?”


Unless someone told you, you might not even know you’d driven into Onondaga Nation.

On this dusty, four-lane road, the border is invisible. There’s no fence, no painted line and no one to stop and ask you for ID.

But while the gas station accepts only U.S. currency, children in language classes here are taught a different name for the man featured on the dollar bill. In the Onondaga tongue, George Washington is still called the “Town Destroyer.”

For many Americans, the brutal past has become little more than a historical footnote covered briefly in school. But no one here has forgotten the killings, the disease and the forced marches that scholars believe reduced the native population in what came to be the United States from more than 4 million in 1492 to just a quarter million 400 years later.

There are no fences marking the borders, residents say, because they are a people that does not believe in fences. Any built by outsiders serve only as a reminder of internment camps.

Today, the question of identity for the estimated 5 million American Indians and Alaska Natives within U.S. borders is complicated. About one-third identify themselves as being more than one race. Some serve in the U.S. military. Whether you use the word integrated or assimilated, many have blended into American life.

And while all Native American tribes defend their right to independence, many see that autonomy as limited, their role akin to that of a U.S. state.

But here in Onondaga Nation, many feel deeply that this place is in no way a part of the United States of America.

Residents still talk about the tour bus that pulled up to the longhouse, its occupants asking, “Where are the teepees?” But it’s rare for outsiders to venture past the smoke shop, drive the unmarked roads, be invited into people’s homes.

Conversations with leaders and residents quickly reveal that many believe they have the same central concerns their ancestors did. There are those here who remain uneasy when they head out into the world built by the people some here still call “the Europeans.”

When Audrey Shenandoah says the word “contact,” it sounds like an epithet. The 84-year-old faithkeeper sits on a knitted blanket in her wooden cottage on the nation, speaking of the moment her ancestors encountered the Europeans.

“They were invaders,” she says. “They still are.”

In her eyes, those aliens who fill the land outside of the roughly 7,300 acres that remain to the Onondaga are peculiar – perhaps even stunted.

“We have a totally different understanding of life and being human and how we act to one another,” she says.

She can see it, she says, in her trips off the nation to go out to dinner, or to buy groceries: How people speak. How they treat each other. How they move. And of course, what feels like another attack against her people and their ways: how they treat the Earth.

“There’s no kind of humanity or togetherness or
connectiveness,” she says. “Look at what being American is doing
to its own people.”


As clan mother, Shenandoah is responsible for the education of the nation’s children (not to mention her own bevy of great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren). She would like today’s scene at the longhouse – the center of civic, religious and social life for the Onondaga.

A children’s summer program focusing on the nation’s language and culture has let out for the day, but the kids have headed back inside for more. With the feathered headpieces of the chiefs hanging along the wall next to a few modern-day windbreakers, a young man sings a haunting melody and the group dances to the beat of a drum.

One slender-legged girl steps to the music in short pink plaid shorts, with a matching cell phone case sticking out of her pocket.

The tension of being both apart from and a part of the outside world is tangible here.

Outside of the longhouse between prayer songs, 12-year-old Robyn Johnson says that unlike many here she probably would vote in U.S. elections, although she wouldn’t want to leave the nation. While she loves the Haudenosaunee ways and considers them her religion, she says being American is her citizenship.

It’s a view that would likely dismay her great-grandmother – Audrey Shenandoah. But, the girl says: “There’s a lot of people that are good. ... If you don’t get to vote for them, then they probably wouldn’t have a chance.”

Nearby, there’s a field where the boys can play lacrosse. The sport played on American school fields is but a cousin to the medicine games played here on the nation. No outsider has ever been allowed to see those, says Gewas Schindler, a member of the Iroquois Nationals team, ranked No. 4 in the world.

That secret game, their sacred game, was once used to fight off the diseases of the white invaders. It is still considered a gift from their Creator, and still used to ward off illness.

Schindler, 34, says that when he plays that game, he feels different, stronger. He never gets tired.

For the nine years he’s been a professional, Schindler says he’s felt guilty about taking money for something that feels like so much more.

But it’s the way of the world, he says. So it’s the way he’s gone.


Ask people here if they’re angry about the past, and most everyone will deny it.

But even after he is warned that the wood in his toddler son’s new lacrosse stick is easily broken, John Parsons pounds the handmade stick rhythmically against the ground as he lists the ways in which the U.S. government is still wronging him and his people: It imprisons Indians for breaking the rules of the outside world. It asserts “the European mindset, where the king or whoever can tax you, and own you.”

On the other hand, the Carousel Center Mall and its nearly 200 stores are just 20 minutes away, in Syracuse.

“The mall is there,” says LeeAnne Cornfield, Parson’s wife. “I’m up there every weekend.”

lacrosse-stick-child.jpgLike everyone else on American Indian lands, they must straddle two worlds. To buy most things, they must leave their trailer, with its broken window and wobbling front step, and spend their money outside the nation.

It’s not simple, being a nation within a nation.

Onondaga Nation leaders say they don’t directly accept federal funds, although nation members are eligible for U.S.-funded medical care. In many American Indian nations, state and federal money pays for health clinics, for education and for poverty assistance. On the other hand, the nations pay fees to states to open casinos.

Some nation residents willingly carry both American and Haudenosaunee passports. And some see the nation’s government as an unwelcome buffer separating them from public services.

But others are angry at what they see as encroachments on their nation’s authority. Earlier this month, someone tried to derail an Amtrak passenger train traveling through the Haudenosaunee’s Cattaraugus Indian Reservation. Investigators noted a sign left nearby, apparently protesting a federal law that threatens to limit American Indian cigarette sales.

U.S. law is very clear on the topic of sovereignty: The Native American nations are defined as “domestic dependent nations,” and the Supreme Court has always affirmed Congress’ right to make decisions for the nations – and to break treaties when doing so is in the interest of the U.S., says professor Eric Cheyfitz, director of the American Indian Program at Cornell University.

The nations “are subject to the jurisdiction of the United States,” said Nedra Darling, spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. While Indian tribes retain rights including those to “self-determination and self-governance,” she said, “tribes do not retain certain sovereign authorities, such as to engage in war or foreign relations with foreign states.”

(In April, the U.S. announced it would review its opposition to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which calls on nations to prevent or redress the forced migration of indigenous peoples, the seizure of their land or their forced integration into other cultures. The U.S. is the only remaining nation to stand against the declaration, and has argued the agreement is incompatible with its existing laws.)

Meanwhile, Cheyfitz says, the American Indian nations consider themselves to be preexisting entities not subject to the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court.

“It’s a completely accurate perspective historically,” he says. “But we’re talking about who has the power.”

Centuries ago, that balance was decided by who had the guns, he said. Now, however, it’s determined in many ways by financial power: In 2000, American Indians on reservations within the borders of the U.S. had an average per capita income that was about one-third that of the rest of the country.


When the historical cards are stacked against you, how do you keep a nation alive?

For the Haudenosaunee, the answer may lie in the long view.

Jeremy Thompson, one of the Iroquois Nationals players, cites a phrase that’s repeated often here on the nation: “seven generations.” All decisions are made keeping in mind the impact on distant descendants

Audrey Shenandoah says the phrase is actually the puny English translation for an ever-present saying in the old tongue – one that has appeared, she says, on all the Haudenosaunee treaties but whose scope doesn’t carry over as well into English.

But she can give the rough translation: The Haudenosaunee guard the future for “as long as the grass grows green and as long as the water flows.”


Samantha Gross is a reporter for The Associated Press, based in New York. She can be reached at features(at)