- We Share Our Matters: Two Centuries of Writing and Resistance at Six Nations of the Grand River by Rick Monture
The Haudenosaunee, commonly known as the Six Nations or Iroquois, have a long history on the North American continent, and a rich written history primarily from the period of British colonial control. Though their knowledge of the forest and their military skills have been romanticized by outsiders, their history has occasionally been overshadowed — indeed influenced — by colonial affairs, both in the United States and Canada. Equally important, their history has been written by others. This is not to say that the Haudenosaunee have failed to remember their history, but that their efforts to interpret it have been muted. Recently, however, scholars, among others, have taken a new interest in the Haudenosaunee.
In this study Rick Monture, a Mohawk and an academic, turns our attention to the ways that the Haudenosaunee remember and tell their story through literature, poetry, art, and letters to reveal a history understood by few beyond the Six Nations. Monture begins his study with the winter of 1785 when the Mohawks arrived at their Grand River Reserve after being removed from New York State following the American Revolution. Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant expressed the need for the Haudenosaunee to record their history and traditional knowledge for their own sense of place but also, Monture argues, to place a marker in settler society that would serve as a record for legal purposes during what would surely be difficult days ahead. Chief Brant was correct because Mohawk history, both written and oral, soon served as a means to assert land rights, political sovereignty (including the right to declare war), and cultural independence. In 1900 the Hereditary Council of Chiefs at Six Nations authorized the translation and publication of one of their oral traditions, known as the Great Law of Peace, which perhaps dates as far back as the twelfth century. With this written history the Haudenosaunee reasserted themselves as independent stakeholders in Canada. Politicians in Ottawa and some Haudenosaunee argued differently, but thereafter the Law of Peace provided a starting place for a host of discussions, recognition, and change.
This literary history of the Six Nations of the Grand River traces the relations between the Haudenosaunee and the British and Canadian governments since 1874. Monture considers the oral and written records of Six Nations people as an expression of ‘‘intellectual sovereignty’’ (xv) that permits the Haudenosaunee to determine their cultural identity. He traces tribal unification by the Peacemaker who directed the Haudenosaunee to accept the Great Law of Peace to guide their lives. It became a metaphorical Longhouse that protected them. Monture leads the reader through a ‘‘brief history of spiritually derived systems of thought’’ (13) in five historical [End Page 384] epochs — Creation, Thanksgiving Address, Four Ceremonies, Great Law, and the Code of Handsome Lake — to juxtapose spiritual traditions with the Anglo-Canadian social and political past. These spiritual explanations of the past provide historical grounding for the Haudenosaunee and determine their response to contemporary economic, social, and political affairs.
By analyzing these historical traditions, Monture shows an early assertion of agency. The Haudenosaunee know who they are as a people, intending to maintain their independence and sovereignty, while also remaining flexible to deal with ever-changing life conditions. Monture discusses the work of writers Emily Pauline Johnson, Enos Montour, and Alma Greene, historian Seth Newhouse, poets Duncan Scott, Bernice Loft, and Daniel David Moses, singer and composer Robbie Robertson, journalist Brian Maracle, and artist Shelley Niro to show how the Haudenosaunee have been strong advocates for Native rights and supporters of independence, nationalism, and sovereignty within Canada.
Monture writes clearly and analytically. He argues that the Haudenosaunee’s historical record, both written and oral, can be used to resolve pressing social, economic, and political disputes with the Canadian government. According to Monture, this historical legacy will enable the Haudenosaunee to achieve their goals or at least mitigate their problems...