Chief of the Chiefs: Chief Leon Shenandoah

The old elder was a chief. He was a small man in his eighties the year we first met; he was only a hundred and sixty pounds full of peace, passion, strength and kindness. Everyone who had the opportunity to sit and listen to his wisdom felt his radiance, serenity, and harmony. He was chief of the chiefs; he was a leader for peace, power, righteousness, and equality.

Every year, we gathered in a place where there was a need to strengthen traditional Native culture and restore balance on respected Native territory. Leon was chief of all our chiefs. He was honored by being chosen to lead our ceremonies from the east on behalf of our circle of honored elders and for the nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy known as the Six Nations or Iroquois. Leon said “We are the voice for the plants; we are a voice for all vegetation, trees, bushes, shrubs, medicines, fruits, and vegetables.” Leon said, ”It was our duty as Human Beings to give thanks, to acknowledge and respect the rivers, lakes, streams, the great oceans and tides, and all of creation.” He said “our Sacred Mother Earth was a lady, and she gives us her blood from her Sacred body for all life to drink.” Leon said, “We humans must never forget these instructions and our Sacred Duties.”

Next the old man said, “We human beings are a voice for all creation.” Leon took responsibility to address a thanksgiving to all life on Mother Earth including everything that moved in the Sky World and all that could not be seen with the human eye. “We join our minds together,” he said. “We give a great thanks as we wander about on this Sacred Mother Earth, to all our Relatives, the four legged, the winged ones, the creeping and the crawling and the fish life for sharing this Sacred Mother Earth with us human beings.” Leon was the humblest, noblest gentle man I had ever had the chance to see, hear, or experience in my life. This all happened over twenty years ago, and I can only try and share the experience I had in the circle of Native elders who were gathered to give thanks to all of the Natural World that morning in 1990. Everyone in the circle who stood with Leon that morning by the Sacred Fire witnessed the offering of our Sacred Tobacco for all the gifts the Great Mystery our Great Creator had given us Human Beings to enjoy on this Sacred Journey in Life. Leon moved slowly, for his old age had slowed him down to almost a shuffle. He was a respected elder in peace and had become one with Creation, sounds, colours, harmony and Celestial movement with the universe.

After honoring everything that moved on Mother Earth, Leon went on to give thanks to Mother Earth, then to Brother Sun, Grandmother Moon, and the Stars he said was where we Humans came from. Leon said, “We Humans came from the Sky World.” Leon gave thanksgiving to everything that moved in the sky, the Winds of the Four Directions, the Sacred Air we breathe and use in our ceremonies, the voices from the sky he called “Grandfathers/Thunder people” whose duty was to remind us that Our Way of Life would continue and the rains would come and replenish our rivers, lakes, streams, and oceans, and that all life would now be able to drink clean fresh water.

Our old elders always spoke in their Native tongue at ceremonies. Leon was of the Great Onondaga Nation from Onondaga Territory; his people and nation were of the Haudenausnee the Great Iroquois Confederacy, and the only times our elders would speak English at ceremonies was when they came into the cities to address environmental issues that threatened life everywhere. We were taught in our sacred circles over and over again that we cannot think of ourselves; we must think of our children’s children and their children. Leon was a leader of our circle, and we had many leaders from across Turtle Island. Leon was also a leader of the Onondaga Nation. He was chief of the chiefs; his title was Tadodaho. When we all would rise to greet the sun during our Sacred Sunrise Ceremony, Leon would be there; for many, many years and he would begin with our Thanksgiving Address. Then our Hopi brothers from the south would give their thanks to brother sun. Our old elders were gathering every year throughout the year and day after day to share their understanding of sacred cultural ways to keep our Native Way of Life alive! The old ones taught us to walk in peace and balance, to respect and love natural life, the universe, and cosmos. Our Sacred Circle was a beginning and way to create healing, harmony, respect and unity for all life; the circle represented the continuation of life itself.

The wisdom and teachings our elders bring to our circles is from their elders’ elders and their elders: the understanding of natural life, holistic healing with natural law and natural life, with a deep understanding that all life must be respected and that we Human Beings are not superior over other life forms. We were given the duty to be a voice for all life forms, and all life forms have their own duties. Our elders taught us that all life is connected and that we must stay connected to natural life on Mother Earth, not unnatural life. Our old elders brought us their strength, insights, culture, and healing ways of life through sacred ceremonies to our Sacred Circles. The harmony our elders had must have come from their grandfathers and grandmothers teaching of The Good Mind, the Oneness with respect for all life: four legged, winged ones, insects, fish life, earth, air, fire, water. In our Sacred Circles, we relive the way of life of our ancestors and their ancestors. In our Sacred Circles, we follow the footsteps of our Sacred Ancestors, the Thanksgiving Way of Life. In our sacred ceremonies, we maintain the way of life with respect to creation and all life forces that give us human beings life for the continuance of life on Sacred Mother Earth. Our children are depending on life for their own future now; they will need to heal, find peace, harmony, and be able to find the things they need for balance. The old circles are older than the old elders that stand in them and pray for thanksgiving every day, every year, or as often as they are asked to gather up or when it is time.

Our elders taught us all natural life is a part of the Native way of life, and this is how our children learn from the old ones how to keep happy, healthy, and feeling strong with the life around them in harmony. With the Good Mind, our circles, councils, and ceremonies create healing through disciplining our minds for life around us. The Lakota say “all life should be happy in the eyes of the Great Mystery, and all life should be able to play in harmony in the eyes of the Great Spirit.” Our Elders and Ancestors gave us the warmth through their eyes and smiles each time we watched them in ceremony and experiencing their love for life and Mother Earth. We are blessed to watch our elders walk, sit, sing, eat, and dance! The memories of our elders and ancestors are a beauty with universal power. The beauty and strength of our culture is with our Sacred Mother Earth; nothing will change this or ever will.

The memory of our circles in the early mornings as we gathered to give Thanksgiving to brother Sun is a sacred seed that sits in our minds, with the sacred fire in our hearts. Eagle, deer, wolf, turtle, bear, plantlife, water, sun, moon, and humans become one in the universe in our sacred ceremonies of thanksgiving and healing. It is an honour for us all to become one in unity for justice, life, and the protection of Mother Earth for our children’s children’s children. When we give thanksgiving it is to affirm our relationship to all life, the life is that our Great Creator has made.