This wampum belt documents the history and binding commitment of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy in response to instructions from the Peacemaker who brought together five feuding nations, symbolized from left to right: Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca. These nations “buried the hatchet” at the base of the pine tree. The Onondaga are entrusted to keep the counsel fire burning for diplomatic reconciliation. 

By Lynda Hollinger-Janzen with Cynthia Friesen Coyle
Wednesday, September 16, 2020

In June, Mennonite Church Executive Board staff issued a statement on racial injustice after the killing of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police. A widely shared video recording triggered a breaking point in a nation where COVID-19 is revealing deadly racial inequities and political divisions are exacerbated by hate speech. As part of a response to staff pain, Mennonite Mission Network offered 30 minutes daily for prayer, reflections, education, rest, as well as renewal and action. Three Mission Network women chose to use part of this time to learn from their Indigenous brothers and sisters through participation in Mother Earth's Pandemic: The Doctrine of Discovery, an online conference. This is the first of three blogs to share their insights.

In contrast to the gut-wrenching anxiety of the daily news; gratitude radiated from the August online conference, Mother Earth's Pandemic: The Doctrine of Discovery.

Organized by the Haudenosaunee people of northeastern North America, the conference featured presenters from Indigenous communities around world. The global pandemic prevented this annual conference from taking place in direct communion with the land, water, and air in which Indigenous cultures are rooted. Instead, organizers brought these elements into cyberspace.

"Every day is Thanksgiving Day."

The conference opened with songs of gratitude and friendship recorded on the shores of Onandaga Lake. Tadodaho* Sid Hill translated part of the song from the Onandaga language into English, "First, we acknowledge the people. Then starting from the ground up, the medicines, the trees, the berries, the four-leggeds…the winds, all these relations to whom we are connected… We finish by thanking Creator for sending his love to us every day and every night and giving us a way to make things right with him."

Cynthia Friesen Coyle, Mission Network graphic designer, was refreshed by the spirit of thankfulness and connection with the earth. It is a constant reminder of our orientation to the earth — the grounding in the earth connects the Haudenosaunee people with others in their community and with the creatures (viewed as relatives) that inhabit this world of ours, she said.

"When a culture is built around a sense of thankfulness and gratitude instead of fear, the outcomes are respect and care for what is around you," Friesen Coyle said. "This respect and care are reflected in the foundational principles of the Haudenosaunee people: peace, equity, and union. They make decisions, not just for today, but they consider how an action will affect the next seven generations."

Jake Edwards, an Onondaga elder, contrasted the one day of Thanksgiving on the calendar used by the dominant culture in the United States with the Haudenosaunee world view.

"For us, every day is Thanksgiving Day," he said.

The Great Law of Peace

In 909 CE, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy was formed by the Peacemaker who brought together five feuding nations: Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and Seneca. (The Tuscarora people joined in 1722.) The Confederacy was based on Skä•noñh (The Great Law of Peace), which required weapons, greed, and jealousy to be buried at the base of a pine tree. The leaders of the nations were instructed to lock arms around the tree of peace. A wampum belt documents this history and binding commitment.

Indigenous historians, or faithkeepers, narrate the post-15th-century account of Turtle Island [United States] in ways that most students in the United States have never read in school textbooks. Oren Lyons opened the conference by describing a matrilineal society with a representative government based on Skä•noñh. In Lyons' history, European people enter the story as confused and clumsy. Their first acts are to hack down berry bushes and fruit-bearing vines "to clear the way." Because they destroyed food sources, they became dependent on the Haudenosaunee people for survival. The Haudenosaunee people shared of the abundance of the land, not because they were in awe of European people, but because their society taught them to work for the good of all people from the present and seven generations into the future. In Haudenosaunee tradition, if a deer gives up its life to a hunter, the hunter leaves a portion of the meat hanging in a tree for the next person who comes along.

COVID-19 is result of White settler exploitation of land, people

The European invaders were governed by a less communitarian set of laws, now called the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, issued by the Catholic popes of Europe. These laws declared that anyone who was not a Christian was not a human being and, therefore, had no right to occupy land. Practice of these laws allowed for land theft, treachery, lying, murder, and disregard of treaties made with the Indigenous nations of Turtle Island. The White settlers' lack of respect and their refusal to live harmoniously with the land and their neighbors resulted in the devastation of the natural world, human suffering and death. This was the beginning of the pandemic that grew in magnitude over the centuries to result in the global COVID-19 crisis that ravages the world today.

Oren Lyons believes that it is possible to allow a natural balance to return to the world if we reorient ourselves to a less prideful worldview.

Skä•noñh and shalom

Friesen Coyle and Hollinger-Janzen found that in many ways the Haudenosaunee culture reflects biblical and Anabaptist values more truly than the White settler culture in which they live. Hollinger-Janzen noticed the similarities between skä•noñh that combines the meanings of "peace" and "wellness" in much the same way as does the Hebrew word, shalom.

"What I heard at this conference makes me feel like the way of the Haudenosaunee is far closer to the way of God that I know and understand," Friesen Coyle said. "I'm reminded of Bible verses that combine "peace" and "thankfulness," like Col. 3:15, 'Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.'"

* Tadodaho is the title of the chief who presides over the Grand Council of the Iroquois League. "Iroquois" is a pejorative colonial name given to the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. 






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Cynthia Friesen Coyle works as a graphic designer for Mennonite Mission Network.



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