Beyond the borders of his beloved Six Nations territory, Jake Thomas’ death didn’t make any headlines.
When he died August 17th at the age of 76, he had been Cayuga chief for over half a century, a living archive for the Iroquois people. Chief Jacob Ezra Thomas was one of the first aboriginal people to obtain tenure as a university professor in Canada on the basis of his great wealth of traditional knowledge, and for 14 years he taught languages, culture, and history in Trent University’s Native Studies department.
He was the last man alive capable of reciting from memory the Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy, which has served as the constitution for the people of the longhouse since before Europeans set foot on Turtle Island. In early summer, 1994, over a 12 day period, Chief Thomas gave a public recital of the Great Law, an event that was recorded on videotape and archived by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.
“That peace is supposed to work,” he told an RCAP hearing. “It’s the power of the words of the Creator where they came from, of unity, being of one mind, a good mind. That’s what makes power.”
The Great Law is the type of oral Aboriginal history that is scoffed at these days by the journalistic and academic elite, the same bigots who rail against modern-day Indian milestones like the Delgamuukw decision or Nisga’a Treaty signing that uphold Aboriginal title and inherent rights. It was also the democratic model used by founding fathers like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson in the framing of the United States Constitution.
Jake Thomas was a custodian of this precious gift, one of many shared by Amerindian people with European newcomers. Typically, neither the gifts nor their givers receive much credit from the beneficiaries.
Ironically, the most attention ever accorded Jake Thomas by mainstream society came during the last year of his life, when he agreed to participate in a recording by rock star Robbie Robertson that celebrated his Mohawk heritage. The Cayuga chief gave his blessing to Robertson’s Musical return to his roots, understanding better than most people the ability modern art forms to help ancient cultures survive.
I spotted the soft-spoken Elder standing by himself at a noisy reception following this year’s Aboriginal Achievement Award ceremonies, where he had chanted and played a turtle rattle to provide the native context for Robertson’s contemporary lyrics. In the middle of a forest of tuxedoes and glitzy evening gowns, this simple but profound man taught me how he honoured the handle of his turtle rattle with tobacco each time he used it.
Jake Thomas lived his culture, whether teaching Six Nations youngsters about nature in his sugar bush, or carving hickory condolence canes, traditionally used in the longhouse at the installation of a new chief, upon the death of his predecessor. His teaching will not end as long as visitors tour the Jake Thomas Learning Centre at Six Nations, or Trent University continues to incorporate into its annual convocation ceremonies the condolence cane he presented to the Native Studies program on the occasion of its 25th anniversary.
If Jake Thomas was a cultural icon for his people, the same cannot be said for the names on which the media focussed during the week of his passing. The attention they received — and Jake Thomas didn’t — speaks volumes about the priorities of “civilized” society. It was the usual cast of media celebrities — politicians doing about-faces on their principles, millionaire athletes using performance-enhancing drugs, a mobster gunned down in the driveway of his respectable suburban neighbourhood.
A lot of ink and air time that week was dedicated to a mounting scandal in Alberta, where senior officers of a provincially-owned bank were being accused of accepting huge bribes in return for approving multi-million dollar loans to prominent businessmen. The bank would also be writing off almost half a billion dollars in taxpayers money used to fund the business operations of Peter Pocklington, former meatpacking and hockey team tycoon.
What was so incongruous about this scandal is that it has been years in the making, escaping the scrutiny of Alberta politicians and journalists, who had been too busy focussing on the alleged financial difficulties of one Indian band which had run up a $3-million operating deficit.
Chief Jacob Thomas is in a better place today, but only after dedicating his life to making this place a better one for all his people.
“We release you for we know it is no longer possible for you to walk together with us on earth.” (Wampum, The Great Law)
Maurice Switzer is a member of the Mississaugas of Rice Lake First Nation at Alderville,Ont. and director of communications for the Assembly of First Nations in Ottawa.