Flag holds high promise of peace
Six Nations' flag lifts prospects for peace

November 19, 2003


A flag of the Six Nations will be raised today at C. Grant Grimshaw Elementary School in LaFayette. A similar ceremony, held last week outside LaFayette Junior-Senior High, followed an emotional community debate about whether the flag of the Iroquois Confederacy - or the Haudenosaunee, as the Six Nations call themselves - deserves a place alongside the American flag.

To Rick Hill, the furor misses the greater point: The Six Nations flag, which he helped to design, could never represent arrogance or disrespect.

Hill is an artist, writer and historian. He is also a Tuscarora, one of the Iroquois people whose territory is near Niagara Falls. Hill was present at several Iroquois Grand Council meetings at Onondaga in the late 1980s, when planning for a flag was a cause of jubilation.

The Hiawatha wampum belt - the fundamental symbol of the confederacy - was being returned by state officials after 92 years. Coincidentally, the Iroquois were sending an all-Indian lacrosse team to the world championships in Australia. The rules demanded a flag, and several ideas for a theme were brought to the Grand Council.

Hill and other Tuscaroras joined Onondaga Faithkeeper Oren Lyons in supporting the wampum belt design of Hiawatha, which portrays the original Iroquois nations being drawn together by the Tree of Peace. Everyone in the longhouse agreed with that theme, at least informally. Hill went to work.

"I went home and did a pen and ink drawing of the Hiawatha design and I gave it to a fellow named Tim Johnson," Hill said.

Johnson, a Mohawk, is an artist and photographer who lived then in Niagara County. He is now executive editor of Indian Country Today, a newspaper owned by the Oneida Nation. The Oneida leader, Ray Halbritter, embodies the beliefs of many Iroquois who stand on one side of a great philosophical divide.

Halbritter's Oneidas built Turning Stone Casino Resort, maintaining that casino gambling is a logical source of revenues. Hill and Lyons are among the Iroquois who vehemently disagree. Their anti-casino movement is centered in the traditional longhouse at Onondaga.

Yet all these Iroquois leaders, and their followers, can embrace the same flag. It transcends their many deep and volatile differences.

"It's become a very powerful symbol," said Johnson, who helped to make it happen.

He remembers taking tracing paper to a photograph of the wampum belt. He carefully measured the distance between each symbol, trying to guarantee that the flag would be faithful in its dimensions. Using translucent paper and high-contrast film, Johnson laid out a final design.

Harold Johnson, Tim's dad, owned a silk-screening business. Harold took his son's plans and turned them into the first flag, the one that would eventually travel with the Iroquois lacrosse team to Australia.

"You might call my father the Betsy Ross of the Haudenosaunee," Tim Johnson said, laughing.

Still, Hill and Johnson remain startled by the way the flag "spread like wildfire," as Johnson put it.

"It's part of the public domain, and it goes everywhere," Hill said.

Almost every Iroquois government, regardless of elected system or philosophy, flies the flag. The design shows up on bumper stickers, posters and T-shirts.

It has become a common way for everyday Iroquois to proclaim their lineage. Hill said the wampum belt design is even used on packs of cigarettes sold at Akwesasne, a Mohawk territory. He worries that some of those using the symbol don't fully understand or accept what it means.

"That flag represents a ray of hope," he said. "It's the one symbol that represents who we are. The whole idea is that those who seek peace are on their way to Onondaga. It's predicated upon peace and diplomacy, and you cannot wave that flag and call for violence."

For those who say the flag shows disrespect for the United States, Hill, 53, can only reply from his own experience. "I used to be an angry young man," said Hill, the son of a World War II veteran. When he'd hear "The Star-Spangled Banner" at a sports event, Hill said, he would refuse to stand up.

"In order to gain respect you have to give respect," he said, "and all I could think of was all the Indians killed in the name of (the American) flag."

His outlook changed after he helped to design a flag for the Six Nations. He was there when the flag was raised for the first time, and he was flooded with an emotion almost beyond description.

"I watched as people from all over the world stood to honor our flag," Hill said, "and I realized, if I wanted them to honor ours, that I had better honor theirs."

He does that now, as one of several proud fathers of his flag. 

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Post-Standard. His columns appear Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Call him at 470-6015 or e-mail him at citynews@syracuse.com.

2003 The Post-Standard. Used with permission.



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