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Our Elders Are Our Greatest Teachers

By Danny Beaton (Mohawk)

In Memory of Alicja Rozanska

In the old days our Elders, chiefs and clan mothers gathered with Tribes, and nations from the South, the Pueblo, the Anasazi, the Hopi Nations would travel North and spend time in Sacred Council and Ceremony with the Mohawks and the Haudenosaunee (also known as the Iroquois Confederacy or Six Nations Peoples comprised of Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora Nations.) One of the first meetings took place after World War Two around 1949, when a Hopi circus carny happened to be traveling the circus up in New York State and saw first hand Onondaga and Mohawk singers and dancers performing for large audiences. At that time the Hopi Elders back home were talking about the topic of culture loss since the arrival of non-Natives to their homelands. The sight of the Haudenosaunee dancers, singers, and drummers by the traveling carny brought joy and he introduced himself to the Onondaga and Mohawk traditional performers as soon as he could and he was invited back to Syracuse, Onondaga Territory. When the Hopi carny explained his people back home in the South were afraid Natives in the North were losing their cultures, he was filled with hope to see the Onondaga Peoples performing traditional songs and dancing. In fact, the Hopi Elders back South were afraid there were no more ceremonial people alive up North.

Chief Oren Lyons was seventeen in 1947 when the Hopi Elders first came to Onondaga Territory, via  Syracuse, New York  to share their Hopi prophecies after finding out there were Indians, Indigenous Peoples still holding onto their traditional cultures and maintaining their sacred ceremonies in the North. What Chief Lyons knows now after becoming friends with Hopi leader Thomas Banyacya and Hopi Nation for roughly fifty years is like a book of knowledge. In Arizona, Hopi territory, the Elders shared and taught Thomas Banyacya the traditional teachings and prophecies. When Banyacya first began to visit the Onondaga and members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy in Onondaga territory, a relationship developed with both Nations, both Tribes uniting for the purpose of educating the world of Indigenous sacred cultures and their shared concern for the protection of sacred Mother Earth. Banyacya told the Onondaga Peoples that we must keep our songs, ceremonies, prayers, and languages strong because that is the only thing that will get us through what is coming from our white brother. Banyacya said: "We need to bring this message to the United Nations that the world is out of balance and time is running out for human beings.” The Hopi brought snakes to Onondaga and they shared their Sacred Snake Ceremony in Onondaga; that was around 1948. 

Hopi Elders Martin Gashweseoma and Thomas Banyacya.


A close relationship developed between the two nations and they worked together whenever they could to share the prophecies of both Nations. More meetings developed and soon they were meeting with the Mohawk Peoples of Akwesasnee throughout the 1950s. The Hopi had great respect for the Onondaga Peoples and Nation because they were an independent government of their own, not under U.S. control. The relationship continued to grow creating such projects as the Unity Caravan in 1960 and the Traditional Circle of Indian Elders and Youth based in Bozeman, Montana. What Chief Oren Lyons says is that Indigenous Peoples have been living off the land for thousands of years. They know the land, they have watched the sun rise from the same place and know what the animals need to survive and vegetation. Chief Lyons says if you come to our territories and start telling us what to do and start extracting minerals and water, you are going to make mistakes. You are seeing the waste and pollution across the Americas already; just look at what the military architects have done to the southern states. We need to work with Indigenous Nations because they know the land where they have lived and now we are talking about survival. We are in a crisis now simply because no one was listening to Hopi or Haudenosaunee prophecies. Canada, the USA, and the United Nations need to take our cultures and values seriously if they want their children and future generations to survive. We are in an epidemic; global warming and climate change have to be taken seriously with more changes, just as our Hopi brothers have warned us back in the 1940s and 50s. Chief Oren Lyons said we need to act fast, we need justice, equality, ethics, not corporate mind. The trees, the fish, the wolf, the insects are natural and that is our constituency. We look at natural life as our family too.

Chief Lyons stressed the importance of Thomas Banyacya and their Hopi Elders’ message that everything is alive on this sacred Mother Earth and all life has a right to live and be happy, that we are not more important than the wolf or deer; we are all equal, just like the Creator made us all equal in this sacred emergence, the sacred road, the sacred journey we were all meant to travel in peace and harmony. Western man is out of balance. The people hold the future in their hands, we cannot survive unless we change our ways. Water is so important to all life, but it’s being polluted and disrespected over and over. We need the leaders of the world to hear the cry of Indigenous Peoples. Our cry for Mother Earth is so much more serious now. Most of our Elders are now gone, Banyacya is gone along with his Elders. I am 92 years old now. We have been giving our white brother this message for over fifty years now with our Hopi Elders.

Our Elders are the greatest teachers we could ever ask for in this lifetime, in this sacred journey when we were young and looking for our sacred ways of life, our traditional Indigenous cultures. They gave us everything they could,  they gave us everything they had, they filled us up with the things that kept them strong and the things that they knew were our sacred responsibilities as human beings. Our Elders, chiefs, clan mothers, and ceremonial leaders knew the law of the land. Our Elders knew how we as Indigenous Peoples should walk on Mother Earth, and our people had a sacred way of life and how we would respect all life on our sacred territories on Turtle Island.


Mohawk Spiritual Leader Tom Porter and Danny Beaton. Photo by Oren Lyons.

The Elders told us never to brag or show off, to hurt someone, always make people feel equal and happy. They showed us how to walk on Mother Earth just by having fun together, no matter what we were doing even if we were serious. Our Elders always had a joke or smile to keep life happy because laughter is medicine. Sometimes things were so bad when our people were dying all around us from cancer and alcohol, but we still kept a laugh and smile for the dying because we were carrying the universe inside us and the universe was our great Creator. Our Elders could make sick people laugh because they were so at peace. Peace is a fundamental part of Haudenosaunee prophecies, and the ancestors and Elders remind us of this important teaching to maintain peace in ourselves, in our relationship, and in the natural world if we want to ensure a world for the next seven generations. 

--Danny Beaton is a Mohawk, Turtle Clan, son of Lois Clause, whose grandparents were Edna Beaver and Freeman Clause of the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario Canada.  Danny is a writer, journalist, filmmaker, and lectures and plays traditional Native flute on request. For more information, please visit:  


Top photo: Chief Oren Lyons and Chief Sid Hill, Onondaga Chiefs. Photo by Danny Beaton