Commemorating the life of John Mohawk-Satsisowah

By Doug George-Kanentiio
News From Indian Country 5-08

The late John Mohawk-Satsisowah was the preeminent Iroquois scholar of his time.

Prior to his passing into the spirit world in 2006, Satsisowah, a Seneca from the Cattaraugus Territory, was an honoured speaker, prolific writer, creative administrator and corn farmer.

He was also a newspaper editor, founder of the American Studies Department at the University of Buffalo and a diplomat entrusted by the Haudenosaunee Confederacy to represent the people at home and overseas.

For two days, March 28-29, University of Buffalo acknowledged Satsisowah’s life by bringing together his many friends to speak about how he had influenced their work, first as a mentor and then as a close friend.

Among the delegates and speakers were Tim Coulter of the Indian Law Resource Center, Suzan Shown Harjo of the Morningstar Institute, Dr. Dan Longboat of Trent University, Paul Williams, the esteemed legal advisor to the Six Nations Confederacy and many others.

Divided into a couple of dozen sessions the representers reviewed Satsisowah’s work as a thinker and as a diplomat, a peacemaker and a planter.

It gave me an opportunity to reflect on how I came to meet the great Seneca, back in 1976 when he accepted the post as editor of the news journal Akwesasne Notes. He was given this demanding job by the Mohawk Nation Council who believed he was the best candidate to carry on the job of managing the most effective Native owned publication in North America.

Like many others, I was also impressed with Satsisowah for his command of Iroquois culture as well as his strength of character. He was an accomplished traditional singer who became an effective teacher to a generation of young Mohawk men.

Satsisowah’s love of conversation, his humour and his raw intelligence made him welcome at Akwesasne for the seven years he was editor of Notes. He took the newspaper into new directions and expanded its coverage of Indigenous issues across the planet which in turn led to the birth of an international movement to protect and preserve the Aboriginal rights of the earth’s natural peoples.

Satsisowah’s first book was the hallmark “Basic Call to Consciousness” which stemmed from the historic Native mission to the 1977 United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. The book was a summary of the concerns that Indigenous nations had regarding their survival as distinct entities. But it went farther than a listing of complaints, summarizing the warnings of a coming ecological disaster should the industrial countries continue to exploit the earth without regards to the future.

He followed this with other books such as “Exiled in the Land of the Free” and “Utopian Legacies”. He was the one who revealed the shady legal theories under which the western powers expropriated Native lands followed by the death of millions of human beings from starvation, disease and outright murder.

I first came across references to Pope Alexander VI, terra nulius, papal bulls and the “doctrine of discovery” by listening to Satsisowah’s lectures. He was direct in his condemnation of these doctrines and exposed the corrupt minds which dared to strip hundreds of millions of people of their humanity simply because they were not Christian.

Satsisowah provided us with a more inclusive understanding of the historic and legal events which have created our current situation but he also proposed ideas for sustaining Native nations as distinct, self-governing entities.

Paul Williams gave insights into one of the most important events in Satsisowah’s life: his role as peacemaker during the Mohawk crisis of 1990. At great personal risk Satsisowah persuaded the Mohawks of Kahnawake and Kanehsatake to put aside their weapons, dismantle the barricades and begin serious negotiations with Canada to resolve the issues which precipitated the conflict.

Satsisowah left an admirable legacy. In my presentation I cited Iroquois leaders of the past: Canessatego, Hendricks, Handsome Lake, Ely Parker, Arthur C. Parker, Mary Cornelius Winder, Nancy Kellogg, Deskaheh, Leon Shenandoah and others who did their best to fulfill their duties towards the people. Satsisowah certainly carried on that great tradition and deserved our admiration and deepest gratitude.