Headwaters in Native Lands: Part I

Council Cup Overlook: BotS Group Photo

It has been said that the beginning is a very good place to start, but the subject of the Susquehanna River is so broad and diverse that it has taken until Week 7 to reach the source of the river. This past week has brought the Bucknell on the Susquehanna crew to a wide variety of historically and culturally significant locations in the upper reaches of the watershed.

Leaving Wednesday afternoon on Bus #4, we spent two and a half days in the Finger Lakes region of New York State exploring Native American culture, ecosemiotics (I’m still not convinced that’s really a word), and conservation/research efforts at the headwaters of the Susquehanna River.

I say Bus #4, because so far, the original BotSmobile blew a head-gasket. The next one we were given was ours for only a day and the bus allotted to us for this trip was out of commission the morning of our departure. It’s been jokingly discussed that perhaps we might go through all of the Bucknell omnibuses, but hopefully we won’t be quite that rough on them.

Day 1: Oct. 6, 2010

En route to Cortland, N.Y., we ventured along the North Branch of the river, stopping at a unique overlook near Berwick, Pa. The high bluffs provide a panoramic view overlooking the river for miles in either direction as well as the PPL Susquehanna Nuclear Power Plant. In the river below, ancient fish weirs built by natives to capture migratory fish are submerged below the turbid high waters from the recent rainfalls, while hawks and eagles migrate south along the air currents created by the high cliffs. Reluctantly leaving this high point that is believed to have once been a sacred meeting place for Native Americans, we press onward and northward to New York.

Meeting with the former Bucknell lacrosse coach who will be our guideĀ to the Haudenosaunee Nation, Sid Jameison prepares us for the etiquette of visiting an altogether unique nation and dismisses us with a haunting series of questions that exemplify the Native American perspective on the environment.

What will we do when the Great White Bear can’t find food?

What do we do we do when the rain eats the leaves on the trees?

What will we do when the rivers catch on fire?

What are we going to do when we can’t breathe the air?

Day 2: Oct. 7, 2010

On a grey, foggy morning, we cross the border into another nation. But instead of border patrol or even a formal line, this is a nation barely acknowledged by the United States – the Haudenosaunee Nation, better known to the West as the Iroquois Confederacy. Despite the novelty of American democracy and its success in the realm of international politics, we have borrowed the framework for our system of government and a form of the democratic system from this confederation of native American tribes, centuries older than our own nation. In speaking with the spiritual leader of the six united nations, Tadodaho Sid Hill, a story emerges that is rarely, if ever, taught in American schools.

The Hiawatha belt, made of wampum (beads from the spiral core of conch shells) is a symbolic record of the formation of the Five Nation Alliance under the Great Law of Peace, and is the present day symbol of the Haudenosaunee, or "People of the Longhouse".

The Haudenosaunee nation was originally made up of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca nations and was later joined by the Tuscarora tribe driven North from the Carolinas. However, there was a time that the original tribes were locked in bloody conflict with each other. Estimated to be between 1000 and 1400 A.D. by the Western calendar, the Creator’s representative, Hiawatha,”The Peacemaker,” united the chiefs of the warring tribes, culminating in the placation of the most feared chief of all: Tadodaho of the Onodaga Nation. The system of governance instituted at the unification is a predecessor of the American three-branch system of government and is still practiced in its original form at the Longhouse in Onondaga.

In 1744, leaders of the Haudenosaunee nation traveled many miles on their own accord down the Susquehanna River to Lancaster to meet with colonial leaders and they told them that if the colonies were to survive, they must unite as the People of the Longhouse had done centuries before. Four colonial governors were present at the meeting and an account of the meeting was published by Benjamin Franklin. The chiefs of the Mohawk and Seneca nations make up the Elder Brothers, represented in American Government by the Senate, and balanced by the Cayuga and Oneida chiefs who are the Younger Brothers, or the House of Representatives. The Onondaga moderate as the executive branch, while the Women’s Council maintains the judicial system, interpreting and enforcing the laws. Rather than election, however, the Clan Mother chooses who among the men of the tribe is most worthy to lead, as it is the women who have raised the men and know the character, weaknesses and particular skills that will make for a good chief.

While many things are similar about American Government and that of the Haudenosaunees, and many of our symbols are also taken from native symbology – ever wonder where idea of the eagle clutching 13 arrows and an olive branch came from? – many differences remain between the two. For one thing, women have always had a significant role and not just a vote in the democracy, an equality that took America until 1920 to finally adopt. Due to the disparity between the skills needed to win public favor and the qualities of a good leader, British author Douglas Adams wrote, “Anyone who is capable of getting themselves made president should on no account be allowed to do the job,” but by leaving the decision up to the matriarchs, this crisis is averted.

However, according to Tadodaho Hill, the greatest difference (and failure) between American government and its predecessor is the separation of church and state. Because there are no cultural stories to bind the past to the present and no higher authority to be held accountable to, the Tadodaho believes the United States’ version of their uniquely American form of government has suffered greatly.

This will be all for this entry, which I confess is longer than usual because of the absence of other sources to tell this story to my world. The democracy we celebrate today was not born in ancient Greece, nor was it constructed exclusively by the Great White Fathers. It was born in and continues to be practiced unchanged in the Long House of the Six Nations.

More to come later…

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