John Mohawk

John Mohawk, Ph.D. is a Seneca author, editor, and professor of American Studies. He is Co-Chairperson of Indian Law Resource Center and a member of the Seventh Generation Fund's Board of Directors. Mohawk has also served as a representative of the Grand Council of the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy, and as a crisis negotiator for the Mohawk Nation in New York and the American-Iranian team in Tehran, Iran.

    "I agree with the general thrust, that I sensed to be the case of the people at Tonawanda, and at Cattaraugus and Allegheny too, that they don't generally see Ely Parker as a kind of role model. I can understand that. Because I think he's more a character in American history in a way than he is in the consciousness of the Indians. And that's because he more or less went home, went away from home and did all this stuff away from them, and he never really kind of came back and said, well, I'm back and I'll do something here. And who knows what he should have done. I don't want to be that judgmental of him. Those were tough times, I wouldn't have wanted to live through those times. And who would like to go and study the law and then be told, you know, you're too dark to be a lawyer and on and on. How he could have maintained a sense of optimism that he still could fit in that society after all the insults and the bruises they put upon him is beyond me. I think I have thrown the stuff back at them and told them to go straight to hell. And have never looked back. But he didn't.

    But I think what happened to him is that he was ambitious. He wanted to be in the world, be a player in the world, and he went off to do that. I think what it cost him in a sense was his identity. I think he gave that up to a degree. He gave that up to the degree that he ceased to be a player in the Seneca world. But he became a player in the U.S. world. I don't think he lost his loyalty to the Seneca world, I think he lost his connections to it. And I think after he was gone for 30 to 40 years, people felt kind of like he wasn't one of us anymore. I think he felt like he wasn't one of them anymore. And that's kind of tragic because if you read his writings, you can tell he has an enormous sense, when he's young, enormous sense of belonging here. The Seneca culture is very much something that you belong to and if you stay in it, you are not alone, you are supported and part of a larger community that is really timeless. So he went into that other culture and you could say he just faded away in it, faded away.

    But I also think that there are elements of his life that we might want to pay attention to. He's one of the first people of color to be accepted. In order to be accepted he had to more or less abandon every single element of his previous identity. If you abandon enough of that, you can become accepted. It wasn't his fault that he had to do that. That he had to seems unacceptable and makes him, in a way, a tragic figure in American life.

    Ely Parker gives us a sense of the complexity, a 19th century version of the dangers of diversity within a dominant culture. There was a moment in Iroquois history when the biggest challenge was going to be physical survival. It's no longer that. Like all peoples who have diversity in their culture, the biggest challenge is surviving as a cultural group. Given that it's inescapable that Indians will be surrounded and immersed by a culture that is really global. It's not just the United States. American culture, Anglo culture-- you go anywhere in the world and that culture is right in front of you. Are they going to be able to maintain themselves as a specific group? Now just about every group that can claim some identity, I don't care if you're Ukrainian or Italian, Chinese, whatever - every group in America faces that crisis. But most of those groups have some place where their culture still thrives, and Indians don't. If they don't maintain their culture, it's gone.

    There are Indian reservation up here (in New York) where not one single Indian knows one single word of their language. There are groups up here where no one can tell you anything about their religion, their relationship to nature. If they had it before, they don't know it. Their memory has been completely erased and none of us are happy with what's left. None of us. This is a culture that has informed the world over and over again. It was at times, I think, the most enlightened human experience in the world. I don't think we have begun to scratch the surface of what we need to think about how to follow that first vision of peace. And to lose something like that is to lose some incredible value to humanity. I say that so white society may get the idea that maybe they shouldn't do any more harm to it. But the responsibility to carry forward is on the shoulders of the Indians. They have to sustain it - they have to look in the mirror and see something valuable about being that."