Rearview Mirror to the Past Along the Red Road of Life

Charles Kader

The sounds and smells of summer are now with us across Indian Country today. To those who wait all year for these familiar and fleeting sensations, and all that comes with them, I hope that you enjoy them. From pow-wows to making frybread and dancing to eating corn soup, the range of activities is far wider than the colder months allow. Yet as I take in the best the season has to bear, I also recognize how far and different our world is today than the one known by our grandparents and the elders who lived then. The balance of where we have been and where we are going as Native people is a constant reminder to me to look for our common heritage, wherever it is I might be at that moment.

Lately I have been embarking on a series of 500-mile road trips between the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory and the City of Cleveland, Ohio. My family needed a change in scenery so I have been relocating them to a residential property there that is currently being fixed up. It has already been quite an undertaking journey.

Leaving the reservation has been bittersweet. Many friends and colleagues were surprised that I was going to do this. Why THAT city? What about THAT sports team? Do you know anyone there?

The fear of change marks these questions. Staying fixed in place is a luxury reserved for no one. From our earliest ancestors to the latest of the seventh generation now born, the likelihood is that in order to stay competitive, then a move is somewhere on a personal timeline.

Yet, as I steadily observe and memorize the New York State place names along Interstate 90, I am drawn to those who lived here before. It is from these historic connections that many of these map points take their names. Cheektowaga, a Buffalo suburb located on the Seneca Territory at the western door of the Iroquois Confederacy, is an obvious one. Canandaigua is another, a small town located in central New York and the site of an influential treaty signing in 1794. Even Lake Erie, which I drive alongside for almost 200 miles, is a namesake of a people now long-missing from their glorious former hunting grounds.

It is not lost on me that I am able to traverse from one side of Iroquoia to the other in the span of one day. A similar attempt may have taken months on foot, historically. The saying ‘speed kills’ is reinforced on me as I retrace the track of these footpaths. Once the travel became easier, colonial-era soldiers knifed into the heart of our homelands with a vengeance culminating in the 1779 Sullivan Raid that forever defined George Washington as a Native “town destroyer." It is the title by which the Office of the United States President is known to this day to the Iroquois people of the longhouse.

People change or are forced to change due to life-threatening events. Those are changes that are best accepted and the longest realized. Having the time to adopt the changes is always a luxury. Unwinding after a forced march is often when the reality sets in that nothing previously known will ever be the same again. And so it was with the historic people of these same lands that I now travel on myself.

The Red Road is a literary term for a right-minded way of life that was fancifully ascribed to Native people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While some see the label as overwrought, I look at it more as a long, physically interwoven path linking Native territories and the people who lived there.

So as I look back at the way things once were in my proverbial rear-view mirror, I am also greeted by the current state of affairs that approach us as Native people on this same plane of existence. Do we still have what it takes to even hold the line on cultural atrophy and postage stamp-sized reservations? Do we still measure up as the vaunted “Romans of North America”, who moved quickly to address threats to the confederated Iroquois peoples? Or have the modern descendants of these people abdicated the responsibility to the American federal government to see to any and all needs that may arise? How well that approach is working out should be the final arbiter of such a belief. All too often, complacency is the course of those without a plan or the means to do anything differently.

We need more options as Native people as we head forward. In Cleveland, I will be seeking out urban Natives to write about and document their achievements. Even as transplants, their stories will often connect them to figures and places of the past. As I drive by the Cleveland Metro Parks system, already I note the usage of the word “reservation” to describe these public gathering places, in an ironic way. The state name of Ohio itself comes from an Iroquois word pronounced O-hee-oo, meaning a large river. I have already read of accounts of Mohawks coming to the Ohio River, to an area once under Iroquois protection and influence.

The Republican National Convention will be taking place here soon. Under a friend’s tutelage that lives in the suburbs of East Cleveland, I have met community activists who are outspoken and colorful. One told me that I was on her own version of an Indian reservation, except that this one was mostly black and all proud, starting with her. We (East Cleveland or EC) may be broke, she told me in a smoke-filled bar on my first night on the ground there looking for property, but we aren’t leaving this place to anyone else. We learned the lessons of what happened to your own people, and that is why blacks and American Indians share so much together, including bloodlines, she let me know. She stated that she would be on the front lines for her people and community.

The opposition posters to the RNC are now up on the electrical poles here. The colorful prints urge Cleveland residents to shut the Republican event down. I have been preparing to cover the party gathering by attending informational meetings with the Cleveland Police Department and contacting longtime Mayor Frank Jackson’s office for help in getting media certification. I am seeking to interview any public service employees here of Native heritage. The odds may be against some media organizations getting inside the convention center but the Indian Country Today Media Network is doing everything that it can here to maintain a presence for our readers. I am willing to do anything to cover this event, including walking the barricaded streets to document the protests which will accompany this entire political spectacle.

The change in my own life pales in comparison to the changes that took place in the lives of our common ancestors of the past. To do my best today I must embrace the differences and seek out the unknown. Still, I am comforted by the distant sound of drums that I hear as I drive through ancient settlements and realize that I will never be alone in my journeys, one that is only separated by time from theirs. It is a historic bond that brings us all together as Native people. It is up to us as well to make the most of it. Our legacy of survival beckons us forward, wherever we may be.

Charles Kader (Turtle Clan) was born in Erie, Pennsylvania to a World War II veteran. He attended Clarion University of Pennsylvania, earning degrees in Communication and Library Science, as well as Mercyhurst College where he earned a graduate degree in the Administration of Justice. He has worked across Indian country, from the Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Montana (where he married his wife) to the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, and now resides in Kanienkeh.

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mike helbert's picture
Welcome to Northern Ohio! Am looking forward to reading about your observations here.
mike helbert
Charles Kader's picture
Nia:wen (thank you) Mr. Helbert for reading our Opinion Section and for taking your valuable time to read my essay. Through our readership comments, we as writers invite and welcome suggestions for future projects. I will do my very best. One side project that you may wish to review is the Ohio Native Newswatch, dedicated to current events and native culture throughout the State of Ohio. On FB.
Charles Kader