Meet Native America: Brian Patterson, Bear Clan Representative, Oneida Nation Council, and President of United South & Eastern Tribes
In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native peoples today. —Dennis Zotigh, NMAI
Please introduce yourself with your name and title.
Can you give us your Native name, its English translation and/or a nickname?
Losk^lhakehte’Ko’, meaning Big Fire, is a warrior’s name, and it shows that you will work, fight for, and stand up for the people. Placing this name on me and speaking it to Creator in ceremony was the last official act of my late Bear Clan Mother Marilyn John in the Oneida Nation Longhouse. It is a name that I will have a lifetime of experiences to live up to or grow into.
What responsibilities do you have within your nation and as president of United South & Eastern Tribes?
Within the Oneida Nation and as members of the Haudenosaunee, we have the responsibility to safeguard a place for the future seven generations. As leaders we are taught to weigh the effects of decision-making on this generation as well as our children’s children unto the seventh generation
The founding principle of USET is “Because There Is Strength in Unity." That is our true strength. Our mission statement reads:
USET is dedicated to enhancing the development of Indian Tribes, to improving the capabilities of Tribal governments, and to assisting the member Tribes and their governments in dealing effectively with public policy issues and in serving the broad needs of Indian people.
In part, USET's purpose is to promote Indian leadership in order to move forward with the ultimate, desirable goal of complete Indian involvement and responsibility at all levels in Indian affairs; to lift the bitter yoke of poverty from our people through cooperative effort; to reaffirm the commitments of our tribes to the treaties and agreements heretofore entered into with the federal government in a government-to-government relationship, and to promote the reciprocity of this relationship and those agreements and treaties. USET is entering into its 45th year as an organization.
I also serve Indian Country in my role as senior strategist, Blue Stone Strategy Group. Blue Stone's key areas of service include tribal governance, leadership development, business advisory, and economic development. All our platforms are directed at the protection and advancement of tribal-nation sovereignty.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead?
I was born to the second post-boarding-school generation. Our people had survived what may have been the greatest effort of the federal government to be done with the "Indian problem." We survived assimilation and the termination era.
As Indian Country lead itself out of the termination era, many accomplishments and challenges were present. I was born on the Seneca Reservation. The Senecas led a great effort to prevent the Army Corps of Engineers from claiming Seneca lands to build the Kinzua Dam. Although the lands ultimately were taken for the dam, and Seneca people were displaced from their homes and land, the long battle engaged the spirit of the Senecas. It was as if this event awoke the consciousness of our people. Indian Country began to waken and speak with a voice based on principle of self-determination.
As children, my generation witnessed the passing of the Indian Civil Rights Act in 1968, the takeover of Alcatraz Island in 1969, the Wounded Knee uprising in 1973, the Longest Walk Movement in 1978, a new era following passage of the Self Determination and Education Act (1975) and the Religious Freedom Act (1978). This rising voice of Indian Country activism resulted in a need for empowerment to address the many hardships of the U.S. government's failed trust responsibility.
This experience, coupled with time-honored tradition and the rebirth of Indian consciousness, has prepared me for a diverse set of challenges all aimed at achieving the goal of nation rebuilding and addressing the failed trust relationship we find ourselves in today—a post–Self Determination era. We in Indian Country need to stand united or divided we will fall.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
Of course, the easy answer is my family. But as I reflect on past influences, I would have to say that I have been guided by the overall legacy of my people, including our culture and heritage. I would also add that the unique heritage of Indian Country and the legacy and struggles American Indians have persevered through also led me to be the person I have become. I think the biggest influence on me beyond family and other Native people is the book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.
Are you a descendant of a historical leader? If so, who?
The Oneida Nation has many historical leaders, including our famous Revolutionary War chiefs. These leaders, who negotiated treaties with President Washington and other Founding Fathers, include Shenendoah, Good Peter, and Daniel Bread. The legacy of leadership goes back even further, in fact, to Hiawatha and the founding of the Great League of the Haudenosaunee. Although he is Mohawk by birth, Hiawatha remains the patriarch of all the peoples in our great league.
Where is the Oneida Nation located?
The Great Oneida Nation is located in our aboriginal territory—a land that has embraced the dust of my ancestors since time immemorial, my homeland—in what is now central upstate New York. Wherever I travel on Turtle Island, though, I feel the patrimony of the people resonate. I feel at home in those territories as I embrace the lifeways of our peoples that define Indian Country. Or as the Mescalero Apache writer and musician once joked, “I am inter-tribal."
Where are the Oneida people originally from?
Turtle Island. Is that not all Oneida territory? As defined by treaty in 1794, our territory exists within our aboriginal homelands. The treaty declared, in part:
The United States having thus described and acknowledged what lands belong to the Oneidas . . . and engaged never to claim the same, nor to disturb them, or any of the Six Nations, or their Indian friends residing thereon and united with them, in the free use and enjoyment thereof.
For as long as the sun shall give light, as long as the rivers flow, as long as the grass shall grow green. That 300,000-acre tract is located in what is now central New York. This land was stolen even before the ink was dry on the treaty.
What is a significant point in history from the Oneida community that you would like to share?
My nation is a founding member of the Great League of the Haudenosaunee. We are the peoples who greeted and treated with the Dutch, then the French, then the English and others who came to the “New World” escaping from religious persecution, beginning in 1613. During the American Revolution, George Washington pleaded with Oneida to join on the side of the colonists, which we did. It is spoken in certain circles that if Oneida did not join with the colonists, this would be a French-speaking country.
The Founding Fathers sat in our League Councils and realized that if “Six Nations of . . . savages” could come to together in a lasting confederation of peace and righteousness, so could the Thirteen Colonies. In 1777 the Continental Congress declared to the Oneida,
We have experienced your love, strong as the oak, and your fidelity, unchangeable as truth. While the sun and moon continue to give light to the world, we shall love and respect you. As our trusted friends, we shall protect you; and shall at all times consider your welfare as our own.
These words seem like forgotten promises. But my people will continue to remind the people of the United States of the promise and commitment they made through treaties.
How is the government of the Oneida Nation set up?
We have a modified traditional government, based on our original form of governance, which is rooted in the original teachings we refer to as the Great Law of Peace. We govern through our clan system and operate in council based on a consensual decision-making process.
Our appointment through the clans is a lifelong appointment. We have seats for three principal men from each of the three clans of the nation, so there are nine clan representatives. According to tradition, male council members are responsible for daily decisions while Clan Mothers make long-term decisions.
How often does the Oneida Nation Council meet?
We meet regularly in our Council House. This serves as an open meeting for the people to attend and engage with their council.
Approximately how large is the Oneida Nation? What are the criteria to become a citizen?
The Oneida Indian Nation has about 1,000 citizens. A person is born into the clan of his or her mother. We remain a matrilineal society as defined by the Great Law brought to us by our messenger, referred to in English as the Peacemaker.
Is your language still spoken on your homelands?
Our language, as with so many other Native languages throughout the world, is severely threatened. To address this our council contracted with Berlitz and together we formulated an approach to teach our ancient language. We now hold a full-time immersion class where the only focus for our people is the use of our language. This includes our ceremonial language as well as everyday conversational language.
Our first class was composed of all Oneida women. This pleased me no end: Our language is being embraced with the love of a mother’s heart. Experienced language participants go on and become instructors in other Oneida Nation programs, such as our Early Learning Center. Language is such a foundational base to nationhood. Language was traditionally one definition of a nation. Certainly it is fundamental to the essence of our identity as a distinct people.
What economic enterprises does the Oneida Nation own?
The Oneida Nation owns and operates the Turning Stone Casino & Resort (TSCR). This includes three PGA-quality golf courses, three hotels and an award-winning lodge, and a couple of spas, as well as an event center and entertainment complex. Together they make TSCR a true destination resort. We also operate Four Directions Production Company and several convenience stores and marinas, as well as the weekly newspaper—now the media network—Indian Country Today.
What activities and events do the Oneida sponsor?
Our council has established the Oneida Nation Foundation, which has met countless numbers of donation requests and local community requests, as well as supporting requests from Indian Country. We are a sponsor and host to the NB3 Foundation Challenge, the golfer Notah Begay’s fundraising effort to address the crisis of diabetes and its effect within Indian communities.
What other attractions are available for visitors on your land?
In addition to Turning Stone, we have the Shako:wi Cultural Center on our homelands, but we also participate in community events, including partnerships and commemorations, with the National Park Service. One example is commemoration of the Battle of Oriskany, where General Washington pleaded with my ancestors to join in the cause of the colonists. We honored his request and became this country's oldest ally.
As a sovereign nation, how do the Oneida deal with the United States and Canada?
Our relationship is defined by the scared commitments made by and to my ancestors as signatories to a number of treaties with the United States. I reflect on the words of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black when he wrote, “Great nations, like great men, should keep their word.” In fact, my nation still receives an annual payment in the form of treaty cloth from the federal government. Our elders have taught us that even if that cloth is as small as the size of a postage stamp, we are still to receive it, as this represents the sacredness of the treaty and the U.S. government's honoring of this treaty.
What message would you like to share with Oneida young people?
I would remind all our youth throughout Indian Country of the sacred obligation their generation holds for the future of our peoples. Great sacrifices were made in past generations so that we might still hold a place and an identity bestowed upon us by our Creator. I would remind young people to live the life they were destined to live—with strength and courage, with love in their heart, with what the Peacemaker called “the power of the good mind,” to make a difference, to make an impact. For the future generations to follow will greatly depend on the ability of young people today to directly impact the needs of our people and of Mother Earth.
Stand up and be idle no more. The issues are too critical.
Photographs by Brandon Stephens, courtesy of United South and Eastern Tribes (USET). Used with permission.
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From left to right: Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips. All images used with permission.