Sending Certain Stereotypes Down the River of No Return

Hunter Gray hunterbadbear at
Mon Mar 18 07:36:34 MST 2002

Note by Hunterbear:

This is a fascinating [but not surprising]  forward, via our good friend
Evan Godt in Ontario.  It blows certain stereotypes to the Four Corners of
the Creation.  Let me point out that Mohawks -- Kanien'Kehake -- are The
People of the Flint and far, far indeed from being simply "survivors"   --
as Dr Oronhyatekha [ M.D.] so consistently demonstrated, obviously
continuing to do so!  I'm vigorously inclined to say that, were he to return
to us, this person of such mettle would obviously be on the cutting edge of
all of the very contemporary social justice activist endeavours of this day
and age.  There are many, many indeed of this great stature  and resolve in
all of our Native nations and communities of the Hemisphere [as there are in
our entire Human Canoe], fighting consistently on all of the fronts of the
Sun.  And that Sun shines on the water, giving us courage and strength

Another very active Mohawk physician, I should add, was Dr  Rosa
Minoka-Hill -- an 1899 graduate of the Women's Medical College -- who
practiced in Wisconsin for more than 50 years.  She, too, a great activist
in her own way, cut significant trails for us all.

Hunter Gray [Hunterbear]

"He was a cool customer. When he applied for membership in the Independent
Order of Foresters, he was told that its constitution did not permit members
of races "considered inferior" to join. No problem, he replied: He had been
born into a superior race."

Burning Sky, blazing trail

A new exhibit captures the forgotten vision and passion of Oronhyatekha,
Canada's first native doctor, RAY CONLOGUE writes


Monday, March 18, 2002 - Print Edition, Page R1

Imagine a Victorian mansion called the Pines. It is two decades after
Confederation, and its wealthy owner proudly flies a Red Ensign over the
roof in token of his anglophilia. The dining room is full of heavy mahogany
furniture, heated by an ornate cast-iron stove with delicate and almost
feminine iron legs. In the salon, a Moorish-style, tasselled hanging sets
off the entrance; the sofas are brocaded, and a portrait of the owner, a
florid looking doctor in late middle age, hangs over the fireplace.

The first dissonant note would be the doctor himself, entering with a friend
and chatting. They are speaking Mohawk. So, it rapidly becomes apparent, is
everybody else in the house.

It's a strange but entirely true vignette from Canada's forgotten past.

Peter Martin, born on the Six Nations Reserve in southern Ontario in 1841,
became Canada's first native medical doctor in 1866. In 1878 he entered the
Independent Order of Foresters, a mutual insurance company, and became its
chief executive officer within three years.

Not the least striking aspect of this success, forged in the face of the
frank and overt racism of the period, is that Peter Martin throughout his
life refused to give up his native identity. He rarely used his Christian
name, insisting on being addressed as Oronhyatekha ("Burning Sky"). He
believed that his birthplace, the Six Nations Reserve, was a sovereign
nation which had not ceded its independence to Britain. He addressed the
Prince of Wales as an equal.

The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, working with the Woodland Cultural
Centre in Brantford, Ont., has mounted Mohawk Ideals, Victorian Values:
Oronhyatekha, M.D., an exhibition based on his life. This kind of
collaboration with a native institution is relatively new for the venerable
ROM, and it deserves to be congratulated and encouraged.

That said, it also must be noted that the exhibit is housed in a smallish
room in the museum's basement; and it has no catalogue. Indeed, there is no
textual material at all, apart from brief wall inscriptions which leave
crucial gaps in a visitor's understanding of Oronhyatekha's life. A small
exhibit of cobbler's tools, for example, is baffling because it does not
explain that the young Peter Martin was trained as a shoemaker.

The bulk of the show is made up of some of the 800 historical objects
collected by the doctor during his life. Here, too, he was a pathbreaker: He
founded a modest museum, perhaps the first native-run museum in Canada, at
Six Nations and collected especially objects that underlined the long
relationship of equals between the natives and the British -- a relationship
which broke down decisively during his lifetime.

So we see a compass given to Tecumseh by General Isaac Brock during the War
of 1812: Brock inscribed it with evident gratitude for a soldier who stood
shoulder to shoulder with him. We see a British dress red uniform of the
same period (how small soldiers were then!) beside a case filled with
carved, jack-in-the-pulpit shaped wooden Iroquois war axes. Nearby is Chief
Shingwauks's war headdress, made with human hair.

The pride that reposes in these objects was under attack by the 1820s. A map
of Ontario's Grand River, dated 1828, shows the sovereign lands granted to
the Six Nations in gratitude for services rendered in the various wars with
the Americans. Inscriptions read "Council Fire Here" and "Longhouse where
the Delawares and Cayuga councils are held and sacrifices offered." But
also: "Nellis Settlement, consisting of about 30 Families White."

The natives were steadily being swindled, intimidated and in at least one
case driven at gunpoint from these lands. The last gesture by the British,
who still remembered their obligations, was an 1850 law to protect the Six
Nations from being "imposed upon by the designing and unprincipled."
Oronhyatekha was then nine years old.

By 1860, as a dignified and articulate adolescent, he was selected to
deliver a speech to Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales. The black, beaded
formal costume he wore on that occasion, long thought lost, was recently
located in the United States and holds pride of place in this modest

The beadwork shows the British crown surmounted by a tomahawk and bow and

Background material provided by Keith Jamieson, the Woodland curator who
assembled the exhibition, explains how the paradoxes in Oronhyatekha's
behaviour reflected his people's situation. Britain formally extinguished
its colonial government in Canada in 1841, which also put an end to the
military alliance between them and the Iroquois and led to the Six Nations
territory being designated as a reserve and the natives as wards.

This was done without their consent, and those like Doctor O (the Woodland's
affectionate nickname for him) who refused to accept this reality did so at
the cost of insisting on a status that was increasingly an illusion. He
often claimed, for example, that a reproduction of the throne and the Stone
of Scone which he possessed was a gift from Queen Victoria. Though he may
have met her, the chair was in fact purchased by himself.

The Victorian era had a paradoxical attitude to natives which encouraged
this kind of delusion. It was seen in Doctor O's white patients, who divided
into two groups: those who thought him incompetent because he was a native;
and those who believed he could perform shaman-like magic cures because he
was a native.

The latter patronizing attitude translated into a great willingness on the
part of dignitaries, including the Emperor of Japan, to visit the eminent
Oronhyatekha and indulge in diplomatic formalities.

Whether this kind of thing went to Doctor O's head, or whether he quite
lucidly decided to humour the whites for his own people's benefit, could be
the subject of a novel or a film.

He was a cool customer. When he applied for membership in the Independent
Order of Foresters, he was told that its constitution did not permit members
of races "considered inferior" to join. No problem, he replied: He had been
born into a superior race.

Just as he had breezed through academic studies (he did a four-year program
at Kenyon College in Ohio in three years, in 1866 graduated in medicine from
the University of Toronto, and a year later got a licence from the College
of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario), he was a quick study in the world of
business. The IOF may have admitted him with reluctance in 1878, and he
suffered continuing racism (he was charged with misappropriating money, and
exonerated), but within three years he had become director of the IOF in

Because the IOF was a fraternal society based on co-operative principles,
Doctor O felt he could express collective Iroquois values there. Under his
leadership it became the first insurance company to offer affordable
policies to working-class people; but, since he was hardheaded, it also
became the first to demand medical examinations.

He led it for the rest of his life, and it became one of the largest
insurance companies in the world. It got rich, and so did he. He decreed
that it have a worthy headquarters, and the stunning Temple Building was
erected in Toronto. But even here, Doctor O's between-cultures personality
was expressed: He insisted that the 14-storey building be a skyscraper with
a steel skeleton, a radical approach at the time; but he also agreed to
reinforcing it with heavy terra cotta buttresses, just in case. He also
liked its florid, over-the-top Canadian symbolism, which included terra
cotta moose heads on the façade. (This glorious folly, unhappily, was torn
down in 1970; part of its façade, with moose head, is preserved at the Guild
Inn in suburban east Toronto.)

Trudy Nicks, the ROM curator who worked with Keith Jamieson on the show,
says that some biographical information was squeezed out because the ROM
didn't have as much room for the show as the Woodland did. She also points
out that Oronhyatekha's museum collection was given to the ROM after his
death, and this show is the museum's chance to exhibit some of it in a
coherent fashion. Keith Jamieson and the Woodland did the biographical
research on Oronhyatekha, and provided the $300,000 to mount the show.

It has happened elsewhere in recent years that written historical records
have conflicted with native oral knowledge of certain subjects, and that
mutual mistrust has created disputes. But Nicks and Jamieson agree that
nothing of the sort happened in this case.

"The community's memory of things like the coronation chair may be different
from the record," says Nicks, "but there weren't disputes per se."

Jamieson points out that when the ROM inherited Doctor O's collection in
1911, the museum's director, C. T. Currelly, was contemptuous of the value
of many of the artifacts. The Indian implements, he wrote, were "of no value
but . . . we should be very glad to have [them]." The curios which
Oronhyatekha collected in other countries -- Chinese shoes, Japanese
objects -- were in Currelly's view mere kitsch.

"And here's what I think of that," says Jamieson. "Doctor O collected
objects from other countries, just as collectors collected from the First
Nations people." In each case, the collector might place a different value
on an object than the people who created it. But everybody's view, in the
end, is subjective.

So the issue here is authority. Who decides what is important?

It's an issue which Oronhyatekha knew very well, and manipulated with
considerable dexterity and a great sense of humour.

"He was selective about the truth," says Jamieson. "It speaks to his sense
of humour. He was a practical joker, and he'd take you down a path if he
thought he could. For his enjoyment and yours."

And while joking, he fought for the survival of the Mohawk language, built a
home for orphans, brought insurance to poor people, and spent 10 years
hammering at the IOF to admit women.

He won all of these battles. And when he died in 1907, the city of Toronto
accorded him a full state funeral. Some joker.

Mohawk Ideals, Victorian Values: Oronhyatekha, M.D. continues at The ROM
until Aug. 4.

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