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March 19, 2012

Haudenosaunee Intellect

Jose Barreiro (Taíno), assistant director for research and head of the NMAI’s Office of Latin America, offers this dispatch on John Mohawk (Seneca, 1944–2006), a scholar, writer, and leading advocate for the rights of the Iroquois Confederacy and of Indigenous people worldwide.

The notion of bridges always called my attention. I thought about that recently as I pondered my thirty-year friendship and collaboration with Seneca historian and traditionalist John Mohawk. I landed on this particular quality of the noted figure of Native revitalization in framing remarks for the unveiling earlier this month of a plaque in John's honor—a gesture of his alma mater, Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York.

John received his Ph.D. long after he had published many major and important essays and books. Deeply rooted in his Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) longhouse culture, both ceremonial and agricultural, he had branched out to consider global issues and universal knowledge. As he once put it, "I am fully comfortable only in two places: the longhouse and the academy." The most serious of John's messages emerge from his linkage of two distinct settings, that bridge that was his life, joining the heartfelt John—in love with his culture, a participant in many aspects of ceremonial and Indian cultural life—and the intellectualized John—the researcher, the thinker, the academic, the advocate journalist, the professor. 

Better and more truthfully than most, he could carry the quality of "thinking in Indian" from the deep culture of indigenous continuity inherent in the longhouse communities of the Seneca Nation reservations and territories to contemporary, international discourse at the United Nations, the Organization of America States, and so on. His mind was global in scope, universal and classical, while his commitment was grounded in locality. He opened up crucial intellectual ground in the search for rights of indigenous nations worldwide.


Bridging is a very fruitful activity. Webbing knowledge and experience in respectful and shareable discourse is at a premium in contemporary, fragmentary climate, even on issues that have very strong scientific cohesion. At Hartwick, College Librarian Dr. Paul Coleman unveiled a plaque that presents a likeness of John, nicely profiled. I felt it a wonderful remembrance to a productive and successful life.

From a firm grounding in a traditional northeastern woodlands Indian community culture, the Seneca of western New York, John didn't just go to the larger world; he returned from the larger world, in fact, to reveal he had never left home at all. He did not have to, not economically and not intellectually. He knew, he lived, he articulated a Native intellectual tradition, well documented and even more interestingly, very well remembered.

In his essays and oratory on the great documents of Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, tradition, John wove the orations and formal language of the Longhouse Creation Story, the Great Law of Peace, the Code of Handsome Lake, into an analytical framework from which to study and interpret the world. An activist scholar, good writer, great orator, John did his best research and presentations in the longhouses, the tipis, the meeting halls of Native America. 

He also embraced the intellectual life, grounded it in his own tradition. "The Indian way," he proposed, in a 1992 keynote speech at Cornell University, "is a thinking tradition."

"The Indian way is a thinking tradition"—brilliant, liberating, this simple phrase, in his broader discourse, opened the proper Indian door to the greatest debate. Is there a Native intelligence in the Americas worthy of serious engagement? A way of life worthy of proposing its own survival? Its own contribution to  humanity? Worthy of arguing its own usefulness and rationality? Is there a Native thinking that can encompass the other world philosophies?

Beyond blinding ethnocentrisms, John argued for the great perceptive capacities among the many indigenous cultures, large bodies of knowledge that still reside within peoples—in particular places, and of place, related, even cosmologically, to specific places.

Not at all saddled by any sense of exoticism, John led many of us into a much deeper understanding of our own cultures. A student of the history of technologies, he could see the integrative and productive capacity of small-scale locality. On this question hinged the unique capacity of Indians to manifest longterm "civilization," he would point out, for having sui generis—from within—intellectual life.

"There is more to it than beads and feathers," John liked to point out. Thinking In Indian.

—J. B.


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