by AnitaMarie Murano, Intern/Volunteer Coordinator
Sylvia Smith accepts a Women of Courage Award at the Women of Color and Allies Summit on behalf of the members of the new Ongweoweh NOW chapter. Photo by Susan Mackenzie.
In the midst of their struggle with the New York state government, a group of Native American women and men formed one of the National Organization for Women's newest chapters. The Ongweoweh NOW Chapter is located on an upstate New York reservation, the Tonawanda Nation Territory, and is led by Sylvia Smith, a native woman of the Nod-doh-wa-ge:o:no (People of the Great Hill), a nation of the Haudenosaune, more commonly referred to as the Seneca Nation of the Iroquois Confederacy. Smith and the new chapter's members were honored at the Women of Color and Allies Summit with a Women of Courage Award for their spirit and fortitude in the face of persecution and violence.
"Thank you for this honor," Smith said as she accepted the award at the Washington, D.C., summit. "It is truly inspirational to be here with all of you during this gathering."
The creation of the Ongweoweh Chapter was several years in the making. In 1994 and 1995 the State of New York began its attempt to collect sales taxes from tax-free enterprises on Native American reservations. The taxing of Native peoples on their own sovereign territory is a violation of treaties signed by the United States federal government and the Native American nation's Clan Mothers. The Clan Mothers are the guardians and government leaders of their sovereign nation, and they must be consulted on all legislative matters.
Despite objection from a coalition of independent Native American businesses and representatives of various Indian Nations, New York Gov. George Pataki bypassed tribal governments to move forward on the state's tax plans. A subsequent embargo was placed on all fuel, tobacco and home heating oil delivered to the Seneca reservations.
"Young people can buy homes and support families on the money that is made in jobs on the reservation. Now we are losing customers and our shops are closing down. This embargo is really hurting us," Smith said.
In crisis, the women of the Haudenosaune reached out to NOW for support in making their voices heard. Rochester NOW president Jackie Ashton assisted the women in organizing protests of these human rights violations.
Ashton was present at the protest on May 18, 1997, which started as a peaceful distribution of literature by the native people who then returned to their reservation. Ashton describes New York State Police then invading the reservation outfitted in riot gear and carrying clubs.
"The advancing troopers started pushing the Indians around; they began to beat men, women and children several times using their clubs," Ashton said. "What I witnessed that day was something I had only seen on television during the early days of the Vietnam War protest."
Said Smith, "After this [happened], I felt we needed an outside connection to get our point across."
She gathered about forty women together for an informational meeting on how NOW works and invited Ashton to speak to the group. What resulted was a new chapter eager to take action and demand their rights.
The chapter took the name Ongweoweh, a Seneca word for "The People," a term many Native American nations call themselves. Smith thought this was a worthy name based on its aboriginal connotations and a desire to make the chapter approachable to the Native Americans.
The chapter is growing every minute under Smith's watchful eye, while she continues to look ahead. "I am still learning all about NOW and what we can do for each other," she said.
Smith is interested in getting the chapter involved in many activities around New York state and the country. She sees the chapter as an experiment for other Native Nations as they try to branch out from their territory into the United States mainstream.
"People need to know what is happening here [in Tonawanda] and in other states around the Union," Smith said. "Again, thank you for this award. I am accepting it on behalf of all Native peoples who are fighting for their very survival everyday!"