Interview with Louise Herne and Michelle Schenandoah on the centenary of Deskaheh Levi General’s visit to Geneva, the role of Haudenosaunee women in the governance of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and the well-being of new generations.
By Leslie Cloud*
Here are gathered the main extracts from an interview with Louise Herne and Michelle Schenandoah on July 18, 2023 in Geneva, on the occasion of the centenary of Deskaheh Levi General’s visit to the League of Nations in 1923.
This is a transcript of an interview conducted in English. We hope to have transcribed as faithfully as possible the words of our wonderful interviewees.
Louise Herne is a Bear Clan Mother of the Kanien’keha :ka (Mohawk) Nation and a member of the Mohawk Nation Council, Haudenosaunee Territory. For an overview of her responsibilities and activities as a clan mother, find her presentation and another interview online here.
Michelle Schenandoah, is a writer, producer and public speaker, member of the Wolf Clan of the Oneida Nation of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. She is co-founder of Rematriation, an organization dedicated to highlighting the voices of aboriginal women, and of Indigenous concepts consulting. Find out more about Michelle Schenandoah’s background, activities and interviews here.
THE MESSAGE BEHIND DESKAHEH LEVI GENERAL’S CENTENARY CELEBRATION
“We exist as the Haudenosaunee Confederation, we are sovereign nations that have always existed as such”.
Leslie Cloud (L.C.): “What does the centenary of Deskaheh’s arrival in Geneva mean to you?”
Louise Herne (L. H.): “I think it’s an immense work of memory about the work carried out by our ancestors. This work is still relevant today and raises important questions for the world and humanity. As Haudenosaunee, it’s important for us to be here (in Geneva) because we want to show the world that we still exist and that we still know who we are. Our ancestors and all they have put in place make us strong. They set out a path that we are following to change the life experience of our people, especially our mothers and children, so that they can access our culture and all that the world has to offer; so that mothers also know who they are, because they are the first teachers of the new generations. Therefore, we focus our attention on mothers and their children. That’s why it’s important for us to be here, to ensure our visibility but also to remind the world that we’ve never been conquered”.
Michelle Schenandoah (M. S.): “Deskaheh’s message 100 years ago is the same as ours today. What our Haudenosaunee declared, what Deskaheh said, continues. What we say today, what our ancestors said even before Deshaheh has always been the same message: we exist as the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, we are sovereign nations that have always existed as such. We have pre-existing treaties in Canada and the United States; we have international treaties that remain supported by our indigenous peoples. It’s still the same message, and this continuity is important, because it supports the truth of our message.”
AN EXCEPTIONAL VISIT TO GENEVA BY A DELEGATION OF HAUDENOSAUNEE WOMEN
L.C.: Women made up the majority of the Haudenosaunee delegation in Geneva for the centenary of Deskaheh Levi General’s arrival. How do you explain the large number of Haudenosaunee women this year?
L. H.: “It’s the women who take care of their families. We women are the first to recognize when danger is approaching or when children are ill. As we are constantly on the ground with our families and communities, we know what we need, how to navigate, how to choose our spokespersons and leaders, how to present our issues at international forums. The reason we’re here today, 100 years later, is because they didn’t take our men seriously. But these are serious issues. We have to show that we are who we are. The chiefs came because women asked them to. This also happened 100 years ago. Deskaheh became a chief because a clan mother nominated him. That’s why it’s important for women to be here, to meet other women from all over the world and merge our forces to become one, because our children are worried: they have no future!”
M. S.: “I think a lot of people have never really understood how the Confederacy works. They don’t understand the role of women in our community, and they project their Western prism onto our community and Haudenosaunee women. They will say that Haudenosaunee women are equal to men. In our culture, women have a high status and men protect this status. We give life, and it’s very important to recognize that the voice of women is the law, it becomes the law of this community, this nation, this territory, this people. So the men become the voices of the people and they broadcast them internationally. When you see Haudenosaunee men traveling here in Geneva, or in Europe, to speak at international forums, they are representing our people, but it’s the women who have guided them. Actually, it’s the clan mothers who bring them there and tell them what they can and can’t talk about, or what they can and can’t decide.
It’s also essential to understand, when it comes to the Haudenosaunee, that it’s the women who make the decisions about the land. They are the ones who decide whether or not to go to war. These are crucial decisions for a nation. So I’m very grateful to be able to come here, to international forums with a large delegation of women; that people like you and others have the opportunity to hear it directly from us, the Haudenosaunee women. It’s a perspective that’s not often shared.”
L. H.: “It’s a privileged interview (laughs).”
THE INFLUENCE OF THE HAUDENOSAUNE CONSTITUTION ON NORTH AMERICAN CONSTITUTIONALISM AND THE OMISSION OF WOMEN’S RIGHTS
L.C. Could you tell us more about how the Haudenosaunee Confederation works and the place and role of women within it?
M. S.: “The United States has been influenced by our form of government. But that’s not quite true, because when the United States was formed with its first constitutions, it left out women, which resulted in an unbalanced system. The United States also left out people of color. The United States was thus created for white men and landowners. However, the states’ relationship with a federal government and their system of government very much mirror our system. (…) When we really look at our communities, we see that the clan mothers are the ones who take care of our people, and that what happens between clans of the same nation is settled within each nation, whereas when things affect several nations, these matters are addressed to the Grand Council”. To learn more on this subject, see Onkwahowakah: Haudenosaunee Worldview and its influence on the American Women’s Sufrage Movement, an interview with Michelle D. Shenandoah.
L. H.: “When we call on the Grand Council, all the chiefs meet on onondaga territory. The agenda is set, and the housekeeper ensures that it is adhered to. Decisions are first discussed between the youngest and oldest brothers. The men deliberate first. Then the decision “crosses the fire” (an expression used by the Haudenosaunee in this context) so that the matter is deliberated among the women. Their opinion is then passed on to the chief, who discusses it with the other chiefs. And so the question is passed back and forth between the groups in the same way, until all the ideas and reasons have been put together to form a decision. If they fail to reach a decision, this means that the discussion is postponed until the following day, as more time is needed to reach a decision. At the Grand Council, consultation with women is absolute. If a woman feels that something is missing from the decision, she’ll call the housekeeper and maybe their boss. And then they’ll go back to the men. And so on.”
M. S.: “(…) the great founders of the United States, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, interacted a lot with our people; but what they never liked was the role of women. And that’s why they left them out. It’s very oppressive. They couldn’t conceive for women to be involved in political decision-making. (…) They didn’t allow women to think politically. Our Haudenosaunee grandmothers were very active in matters of politics, land and the Nation. They controlled the economy and the laws that were made. They had a lot of influence.”
INDIGENOUS WOMEN’S COMPETENCE WITH REGARD TO LAND RIGHTS AND THEIR TARGETING BY GENDER-BASED VIOLENCE
L. H.: “It’s also important to understand that it was women who made decisions about the land, wasn’t it? When you look at the founding of the United States or Canada, or any other country in the Americas, most often, most of the time, and especially in Haudenosaunee territory, it was women who made decisions about the land. When settlers wanted to expand their territories westward, who got in their way? Women, because they were the ones who had the final say over the land. So when you look at history, it’s the native women who are attacked, who disappear, who are murdered. We can see how the laws and policies created by the United States and Canada do not protect indigenous women. Many policies have been designed to take decision-making power away from women, such as the Indian Act in Canada and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in the United States. All these agencies were created to control indigenous peoples, but there has always been this double impact on indigenous women and mothers, and particularly on the authority and rights recognized to them in our systems, in accordance with natural laws. (…) Today, we can see that it’s indigenous women who are on their feet. We are reclaiming our culture, our language, to ensure that our children know who they are, what their language is. That’s what the government wanted to take away from us.”
RESPECT FOR HAUDENOSAUNEE WOMEN’S RIGHTS: A QUESTION OF SOVEREIGNTY
L.C.: “In your opinion, how have the rights of indigenous women evolved in the United States?
M. S.: “We can only answer as Haudenosaunee women, because we have our own perspectives. We came here to Geneva with our own Haudenosaunee passport. We’ve always asked for recognition of our sovereignty, of who we are, as members of our nation. In 1924, the United States passed the US citizenship act, in an attempt to give citizenship to all indigenous peoples in order to facilitate the ongoing process of assimilation and erase indigenous identity. But the Haudenosaune said: thanks, but no thanks! When you look at history, when white women were fighting for the right to vote, during the same period our children were being taken away from us… Different sectors were trying to assimilate us; to take away our culture and make us Americans or Canadians, which we never wanted. Since then, we’ve always asserted who we are, and we continue to do so today. So for us, it’s not a question of rights, it’s a question of expressing our sovereignty. About expressing who we are and being respected by the government rather than seeking rights within their political system. Because we have our own political system. It would be different to travel here with a United States passport.”
THE HERITAGE OF JIKONHSASEH AND THE SCHOOL OF PEACE,
L. H.: “Jikonhsaseh, called the Mother of Peace, had a similar status to our Tadodaho, who is like the great leader of the whole confederation. But nobody talks about her. She’s been excluded from written history, and we’re trying to revive her at the same time as we try to revive a school of peace. We want our children to know what peace looks like, a model of peace. Because children are constantly bombarded by images of war; they’ve learned how to be combatants. But we want to create a global school for Peace, where children can work and appropriate peace into their lives; be able to resolve any conflict by implementing great thinking”.
HEALING TRANSGENERATIONAL TRAUMA
L.C.: How do you cope today with transgenerational trauma as Haudenosaunee women?
L. H.: “It’s easier to build a strong boy than to repair a wounded man. So we focus on our young people. And we put everything we never had into them. So we hope that, in time, they will grow stronger through trauma erasure or trauma recognition. Then they can live with it. We have different methods of mental health and medicine within the sweats lodges where we look after the children, one by one, one man at a time, one woman at a time. When we say we’re in the trenches, it means we’re wrestling with the residual effects of the historical traumas we’ve suffered and continue to suffer. But a break is underway. Thanks to religious freedom, we are now free to practice our way of life. We have committed ourselves to a return to traditional methods of care. This is what we do, how we deal with trauma. I think we need to invest in this movement, for our young children. In this way, we also bring them the truth. I think the truth sets anyone free. It’s important for women to become aware, at this particular moment in history. Because women are more inclined to compassion and understanding of others. We all live the same experience of oppression, don’t we? no matter what nation the women belong to. (…) There’s a lot to say, but I believe that one day, we’ll have our own women’s United Nations organization, just for women.”
THEIR MESSAGE FOR NEW GENERATIONS
L. H.: “My message to new generations is that less is always more. When you find meaning in things that didn’t make sense to you before, that’s evolution. I think the world is hungry for mothers. We need to bring our children back to our chests. They need to listen to our heartbeats and we need to make them breathe from our own chest because we’re feeding them. As women, we need to analyze and understand why we’ve been oppressed for so long. Men are afraid of us.”
M. S.: “I think a lot about our relationship with Mother Earth. Indigenous peoples have been so close to Mother Earth. They’ve lived in balance with Mother Earth. They have the truth, the wisdom and the peace of mind to be able to sleep well and know that there can be a future for our children. But now our future is really uncertain. I think it makes things more difficult and creates a sense of discomfort for humanity. We don’t need to wait for the next big study from some big university or corporation to solve the world’s problems, because the knowledge is already here and has been here for thousands of years. It lives and breathes in our indigenous peoples.
We need to create relationships with indigenous peoples; but to be in a true relationship. That means not just taking, but understanding that relationships must be reciprocal. You have to be able to give. This starts with recognizing the possibility of receiving this type of knowledge. It’s there, and it’s simple. But we need to make changes. In 1977, Oren Lyon, Faithkeeper of the Onondaga nation, came to the United Nations. According to him, we are now in the last round, and we must all stand up and fight. It all boils down to four words: Value Change For Survival. That is the point we are at. »