Angela Ferguson with white corn grown on the Onondaga Nation Farm. Photo by Mike Greenlar | Central Current.

This fall, Angela Ferguson is thankful for a bountiful harvest at the Onondaga Nation Farm, nestled 20 miles south of Syracuse, because not all of her Haudenosaunee neighbors were nearly as blessed.

As the Nation’s farm supervisor, she’s tasked with growing nourishing foods in observance of traditional methods for her community, some of which are stockpiled for ceremonial purposes. 

There hasn’t been a single harvest season where crops weren’t offered to Onondaga faith keepers to sustain their rituals ever since her arrival at the farm more than a decade ago. 

Less than 200 miles west toward Buffalo, the Seneca Nation’s Gakwi:yo:h Farms couldn’t salvage any bushels of corn this summer due to a month-long drought in July. Ferguson has contacted regional Native producers around each harvest time; and this season, she suggested that the lack of rain scorched their seeds and soil as a result of climate change.

“The conditions have to be right. We had such a nice harvest in light of it,” said Ferguson, a member of the Eel Clan. “So, I’m going to label all my seeds drought-resistant because they survived. It shows the seeds are gonna be strong the next time that happens.”

They’ll be stored among more than 4,000 ancestral varieties of the Three Sisters: corn, beans, and squash. No more than five Onondaga farm employees closely safeguard the precious seed library 24 hours a day. Despite a debilitating drought, this year’s abundant harvest serves as a timely reminder to utter thanks to the Creator — solely relying on “The Words That Come Before All Else” — more commonly called the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address

Ferguson described the address as “instructions that were given to us” — the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy: Cayuga, Seneca, Oneida, Onondaga, Mohawk and Tuscarora — to acknowledge all life by the Creator at the beginning of Turtle Island.

It’s a greeting of gratitude, not just giving thanks once a year, but each and every day. Even today, Haudenosaunee peoples from across the Confederacy still honor that tradition without any hesitation by extending gratitude to the natural world for all that remains, including land, life, and language.

“Agriculture is your way of inserting yourself into that address and making it alive,” Ferguson said, “Everything is listed as an equal and it’s humbling because it teaches you that all of these living things, including plants, animals, trees, water, the winds, the clouds, the sky, the moon, the stars, the sun, are connected.”

At the Onondaga Nation School, Turtle Clan Mother Freida Jacques has emphasized the significance of the address to Native youth for decades while working as a home-school liaison. 

Onondaga Nation Clan Mother Frieda Jacques at the Indigenous People’s Day celebration in Syracuse held at Everson Museum of Art on Oct. 10, 2022. Photo by Mike Greenlar | Central Current.

Her lessons have even translated beyond the boundaries of their reservation, bridging cultural and educational gaps between the Haudenosaunee and those who reside in Central New York.

“When I speak about all the parts, I always mention that the Creator gave all these duties to follow,” said Jacques, a member of the Onondaga Nation, “and we’re thanking them for continuing on with their duties. This thanksgiving that we’re feeling and sending out, it’s not worship. We’re thanking, not worshiping them.”

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‘Now our minds are one’

Like the address, Betty Lyons, president and executive director of the American Indian Law Alliance, is also grateful for recently regaining 1,000 acres of predominantly forested ancestral homelands along the headwaters of Onondaga Creek in Tully Valley, which are considered to be sacred by her community.

The Peacekeeper, a messenger from Lake Ontario sent by the Creator, stopped the spilling of any further bloodshed between the embattled Nations. His intervention is credited with uniting the Six Nations to forge the Haudenosaunee Confederacy on those same shores more than a thousand years ago.

“It’s our responsibility to hold space for all living things that cannot speak for themselves and to protect them,” said Lyons, a member of the Onondaga Nation.

Haudenosaunee peoples acknowledge that the address underscores a deeply personal relationship with the land — one that existed long before colonial settlers came to celebrate a feast day, later turning into a federal holiday, popularized at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts. 

Now, centuries later, Lyons insisted climate change is an existential threat, not just to her cherished Onondaga way of life, but the rest of the earth and its inhabitants.

“Europeans came here not that long ago, and look at what has happened in this short span of time: the pollution, the climate change, the disregard for all other living beings under their watch,” said Lyons, a member of the Snipe Clan. “We’re already past the tipping point. We can only slow it down now. We can’t go back to the way it was.”

Betty Lyons, executive director of the American Indian Law Alliance, stands inside the Skä•noñh Center, November 22, 2022. Photo by Mike Greenlar | Central Current.

That return to the natural world is becoming increasingly implausible in her mind. Preserving life and land is tough enough, let alone traditional Haudenosaunee languages that articulate gratitude to the Creator in their own tongues.

The address is largely considered a living value system, one that is affirmed by all of who listen and actively participate in the greeting by answering a response with these words: “Now our minds are one.”

Yet the number of Haudenosaunee peoples who can utter the reply, or call back, in its original languages is dwindling.

Tadadaho Sid Hill, chief of the Onondaga Nation, said there are about 30 students enrolled at the Nation’s Ne’ Eñhadiweñnayeñde’nha’ language center, which opened in 2011. Most can understand and acknowledge the address, even if they occasionally seek assistance. But there are only an estimated 15 Onondaga faith keepers, elders and leaders that are highly proficient language speakers both in and around the Nation’s reservation. 

The fact that fewer Native language speakers are able to understand the address and its universal messages is an enduring struggle — one that will be inherited for generations to come — not only among the Onondaga, but throughout the rest of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.

‘I thought it was impossible’

The thought of losing the Seneca language once and for all brought Vance Wyder to tears while he was serving in the U.S. Navy amid the Vietnam War.

“I got a letter from my great grandmother. It jarred my memories, but I couldn’t decipher it,” Wyder remembered. “So, I had to really call on the spirits.”

Growing up in a Seneca-speaking household on the Tonawanda Seneca Nation’s reservation, Wyder once possessed some proficiency in Seneca as a youth prior to picking up English; he later severed that connection altogether while attending predominantly non-Native schools that solely taught in English before enlisting in the armed services. But the yearning desire to relearn all that had been lost still remained dormant inside him.

Wyder sparsely self-educated himself upon discovering Seneca literature materials inside the Navy libraries while overseas. Soon enough, the language started coming back, but Wyder admitted that “life took over” and distracted him. His progress stalled shortly after he left the service at 24, and returned to the Tonawanda reservation, less than 50 miles outside of Niagara Falls.

Vance Wyder, a Tonawanda elder, utters the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving address in Seneca during this year’s Indigenous Peoples Day celebration in Rochester. (Photo courtesy of Eva Nielsen)

It wasn’t until he turned 60 when Wyder had an opportunity to linguistically immerse himself once again, only after gaining permission from his community to do so. He spent the next six years studying the first language he ever uttered as a child, only to characterize his own proficiency as “close enough to be considered fluent.”

He’s mastered roughly 10,000 out of some 250,000 words within the expansive Seneca vocabulary. He’s gotten that far by exercising patience and repetition while listening to his ancestors, quite literally. 

Wyder had compiled a collection of at least 150 language recordings over the course of his lifetime. The personal archive contains a range of recordings from close relatives speaking in Seneca and even prized treasures, including a physical copy of Tonawanda Sachem Chief Corbett Sundown’s rendition of Ganö:nyök, the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address.

Over time, he eventually became one of an estimated 10 fluent Seneca speakers who are still among the Tonawanda community. He earned his status as a revered elder and had been unexpectedly tapped to give his first address nearly five years into that journey during a gathering in Niagara Falls. And that moment meant everything to Wyder, who at one time, openly took his language for granted.

“I never dreamed that I would be able to speak our language as well as I have,” Wyder said. “I thought it was almost impossible.”

‘It reminds me of poetry’

If Montgomery “Monty” Hill was asked to give a Thanksgiving Address in his Tuscarora language by grouping everyone into a single room, he guessed “maybe less than 50 but more than 20” would be able to really understand him.

“In terms of elders, speakers that were children and grew up hearing Tuscarora in their home and were raised by another set of people who had also heard it,” Hill paused, “there might be like two or three still left alive.”

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As a member of Tuscarora Nation, Hill has dedicated his doctoral studies to linguistics. His dissertation focused on the revitalization of his peoples’ language since he almost lost it entirely. 

He’s inspired to preserve it even on SoundCloud, passing down the lessons and words of the Thanksgiving Address through Tuscarora and Mohawk language courses to Native and non-Native students as an assistant professor at the University at Buffalo.

“It reminds me of poetry. There’s a lot of ways to acknowledge the world around us, and you have this opportunity to sort of creatively express that when you’re doing the Thanksgiving Address,” said Hill, a member of the Beaver Clan. “The creation of this picture, it’s an iterative process.”

“We’re thankful for the people, okay,” Hill elaborated. “You can iterate on that, ‘We’re thankful for the people, everyone that was able to come.’ Then we can say, ‘We’re thankful for all the people that were able to come and we’re gonna keep in our minds all the people that weren’t able to make it here. And the people that weren’t able to make it here, you know, maybe they were sick, maybe they were busy, and so on and so forth.’” 

Every verse expands upon the preceding one.

Each time a Thanksgiving Address is uttered, it’s an entirely different experience — drawn from the descriptive memories of that particular speaker. Some are shorter, lasting no more than five minutes, and others linger for up to an hour depending on an individual’s language proficiency.

The reply, or call back, “Now our minds are one,” is considered the responsibility of a receptive audience to engage in. It also connects to this cultural concept of “one-mindedness,” which Hill often tries to explain as a form of consent.

“It’s like, ‘I’m aware of this, I hear what’s being said, and I and I agreed to it,’” Hill said. “When you hear that as a speaker, it’s very reassuring and when everyone in the room is coming together, it’s a really powerful social phenomenon to experience.”

‘It starts opening the universal truths around you’

Disruptions have delayed Cayuga children from participating in that social phenomenon since their weekday youth language immersion day camp had been put on hold for the last three years. 

The COVID-19 pandemic created complications on top of an engulfing factional schism and dispute within the Nation itself. But Dylan Seneca, one of the program’s two instructors, offered thanks for helping bring that tradition back to Seneca Falls.

“This last summer, we started it back up,” said Seneca, who identifies as Gayogohó:no’ Cayuga. “It’s beautiful to see the kids grow up to know who they are.” 

About ten Cayuga children between 7 and 12 attended, many receiving instruction for the first time in three years. Much like Hill, Seneca is also attempting to revitalize the Cayuga language in their Nation’s ancestral homelands for the next seven generations to come.

Dylan Seneca, a member of the Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫʼ Cayuga, offers “The Words That Come Before All Else” before the commemoration of new women suffragists statues in downtown Seneca Falls. (Photo courtesy of Greg Cotterill)

Although Seneca grew up in Buffalo with his father and the nearby Seneca Nation, he eventually moved to the town of Seneca Falls, as did his mother, grandmother, and uncles by 2010. None of them knew Cayuga; and he didn’t begin learning the language until five years later upon meeting a few first language speakers from across the Grand River in Canada.

While Cayuga language speakers, like all Haudenosaunee peoples, are scattered across several territories and reservations both in the U.S. and Canada, there are only a handful of Gayogohó:no’ linguists in the Cayuga and Seneca counties who can truly acknowledge the address today.

“Unfortunately, five or six people are proficient enough to be able to speak the Thanksgiving Address and understand it,” said Seneca. “When you start progressing further with the language, it starts opening the universal truths around you. That’s what our ancestors wanted: to show, to speak, to be able to hear us speak the language. It makes them happy and all the creation happy around them.” 

The Gayogohó:no’ community relies on Seneca to deliver the Thanksgiving Address wherever he goes and represents his peoples. He tries to extend a lengthier version of the address anytime that the chiefs or clan mothers ask him to do so, insisting it’s his responsibility to invite the Creator to join them on their journey. 

“I connect to creation. That’s my strength. That’s my peace. That’s my Skä•noñh. That’s my good mind,” Seneca said. “I make it look easy sometimes, but every day is a struggle. It was tough growing up, but it’s tough now. I take one day at a time to be thankful for everything that I have, and to move forward with a good mind, peace, love and compassion. Today’s a new day to be thankful.”

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