Writer Cited: Oren Lyons

I always kick off my study of American Literature with a look at Native American voices. It's my first unit--one I teach every January--and I think it gets the survey portion of the course off to a good start, focused on values and voices that are truly, uniquely American.

I have written already about another week's worth of lessons I do in this unit, covering an essay, "King Kamehameha III's Feathered Cape," by Richard Kurin.

This week I want to describe a remarkable resource: the testimony of Onondaga chief, Oren Lyons, before the  Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs, December 2, 1987. This remarkable testimony delves into the history of the American Republic and connects key concepts to laws which the Iroquois had in place a hundred years or more before European settlers landed on American shores.

I first learned of the Iroquois influence on the U.S. Constitution in Jack Weatherford's book, Indian Givers. I had always seen the "founding fathers" as white guys in powdered wigs. In fact, Europeans brought with them to America a history of despotism and the divine right of kings. As Weatherford showed, Europeans certainly didn't "discover" America, but they discovered freedom here that had been heretofore unknown to them--a freedom shown to them by Native Americans. (Many of these sentiments are shared in Bev Sellars's 2016 book, Price Paid: the Fight for First-Nations' Survival).

Further searching led me to Lyons's senate testimony. I chose him over Weatherford's text, which I still use on occasion as a "back-pocket lesson" to compare the writers' skills on a single topic (or to compare first-hand with second-hand accounts).

Lyons's testimony is set up as a three-day assignment.