Learning from and Remembering Chief Irving Powless Jr.

From the January/February 2018 PNL #858

In gratitude to Chief Irving Powless Jr.

Chief Irving Powless Jr. passed away on December 1, 2017. He was a member of the Onondaga Nation Council of Chiefs, an expert on traditional law, history and treaties. Irv was also Navy veteran, a long-time railroad worker, an author, a Hall of Fame lacrosse player, father, husband, and story teller with a powerful message.

Irv brilliantly turned our minds toward looking in the mirror, to understand our own culture. He loved to tease us, teach us, and he wanted us to learn but not to take. Non-Native peoples have a way of appropriating sacred practices, studying our neighbors, wanting to feel better by being of help. Irv turned this on its head. He was a genius in the anthropological study of us, the dominant culture. He had scores of anecdotes, some funny, some sad, that made us understand how our culture’s ways of thinking and our history have led us to the global crisis we are in today.

A favorite of his many stories was how when Haudenosaunee people observed our ancestors’ behavior they knew something was very wrong—because the newcomers would go into the woods to be “alone.” To the Haudenosaunee this idea of getting solitude in the forest is preposterous. We’re surrounded by a multitude of tree beings, animal beings, flower beings and water beings all carrying out their responsibilities, from whom we can learn. The story that came down to Irv was that to newcomers to Turtle Island, only humans mattered very much, and the only relation to earth’s abundance was one of commercial opportunity. His common refrain ultimately became the name of his last book: “Who are these people, anyway?”

Irv wanted us to remember our treaty obligations. One of his proudest accomplishments was negotiating the return of wampum belts being held against the will of the Onondaga by the New York State museum.

One of the amazing facts about Irv and NOON was that despite everything, he loved us. He gave to us his time, his knowledge and especially his humor. After all that had happened to his people and to him, his generosity toward us was amazing. I hope and trust that we can meet his expectations of us, as we move forward in this project called Neighbors of Onondaga Nation.

For further learning, read “Who Are These People, Anyway?” available whenever NOON tables and Syracuse University press, and watch The Onondaga Nation Encounters European Settlers on the Syracuse Peace Council’s YouTube channel.

– Jack Manno has been a friend and colleague of Irv's for 25 years. Jack’s longer piece can be found at www.peacecouncil.net/noon.