Neal Powless: SU Ombuds brings a message of healing to a polarized world
Neal Powless brings a message of healing to a polarized world
Head south from Syracuse University on I-81, travel about 15 minutes down to exit 16, and arrive in a sovereign nation, a sovereign nation from which, should you fly a drone or perhaps climb up on one of the region’s rolling hills, you can see the SU Carrier Dome glistening in the near distance like a snow-covered peak.
This is Onondaga, where Neal Powless, of the Onondaga Eel Clan, grew up and has lived most of his life. The reservation looks now like any rural American town, but the matrilineally structured nation is worlds removed culturally from the surrounding patriarchal, dominantly white society.
In the heat of ongoing #NotAgainSU protests on campus, Powless recognizes the escalation of bias incidents here as a reflection of our national polarization and tradition of prioritizing some voices over others.
“I see how systems impact individuals. I understand how these big hierarchical systems grind people up—” He takes special care with those last three words, his voice dropping to a whisper.
“And understanding how that same system has ground up my ancestors too, there’s something that we can all share.”
Powless, who at 45 now works as the University Ombuds (a neutral and confidential campus resource for conflict management and facilitated conversation), thinks it’s the buildup of ego and an I’m-right-you’re-wrong social climate that gets us into trouble.
For him, it’s not a question of determining black-and-white facts but of uncovering individual truths — bringing every voice to the table and validating the experience of every person, even if they might seem to contradict one another.
“I think that the majority of the world wants to live in the gray area and wants to be heard,” Powless says. “And at the end of the day in order to be heard we have to listen.”
To Powless, creating spaces where every voice is valid has a lot to do with stories.
He has always seen the world through a narrative lens: As a kid, whenever he and his father would leave a movie, his dad was often astonished at how much his son could quote from the film. For Powless, who now has a growing IMDb page in film production, movies have always been a window into an alternative perspective, another person’s truth.
Powless is often recounting a story — maybe it’s the story of previous Haudenosaunee spiritual leader Leon Shenandoah, or maybe it’s the story of that time he met Jerry Seinfeld — but he is also always listening to stories. His pursuit of degrees in psychology and counseling were a product of that same theme: how do I better understand my narrative and help others to do the same?
Within the walls of the SU Ombuds office, his take on being an “ear to the people” entails both hearing each person’s story and helping them to take ownership of it themselves.
Powless’s native name, Hawenawdies, translates to “his voice is heard among the people and he brings a message.” He long struggled to figure out what it meant to live into that name. Who was he to know what was right or wrong, or to speak for anyone else’s experience?
“And then I realized I just had to share my own story, my own experience and how I understood it, internalized it, and say this is my experience,” Powless says. “You may experience another indigenous person in another way but this is mine.”
Regardless of what comes next in terms of diversity and inclusion at SU and across the U.S., the conversation about identity and inter-group injustices has been opened. In Powless’s mind, facilitating that conversation and listening to every voice is the best place to start.
At Onondaga, if you stand on the deck of his childhood home, you can make out through the trees the raw, Tyvek wrapped façade of the house Powless and his family are building. It’s been more than six years since he lived along the shores of Hemlock Creek, but now its tall, waterside phragmites will populate his new backyard and lead down to the stream directly from his house. The voice of the rushing water resonates in the open air.
As Powless admires and listens from the slate stone perch behind the plywood structure, it becomes clear that the appeal has nothing to do with the house itself.
Growing up, he found many meditative moments along the creek, often from the security of his own secret nook by the small bridge at the end of the road.
The stream and the thoughtfulness it brought him has been a source of healing throughout his life. His story is the same story of mindfulness and healing that flows through many generations and centuries of his people, the same narrative he believes will allow us to grow into a more peaceful and collaborative space as both a university and a global people.
Hawenawdies. His name is a sentence, a calling.
“To be a messenger, I have to be able to listen,” Powless says. “I have to hear that story.”
A story of survival, a story of healing
By 4 p.m. on April 21, 1779, the American Continental Army had burnt all of Onondaga to the ground. The colonel in charge of the expedition reported that 50 houses, vast stores of corn and beans, and all livestock were destroyed — part of a scorched earth campaign commanded by General George Washington.
The Clinton-Sullivan Campaign is not a popular (if mentioned) passage in U.S. history books. But for the Onondagas, it is a pivotal moment in their survival.
Powless listened to this story two years ago at Tsha’ Thoñswatha, the Onondaga Nation fire barn, with others training to become facilitators for the Witness to Injustice blanket exercise. The multi-hour activity, conducted at pop-up locations by the local organization Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation, allows participants to hear the history of North America’s colonization and experience it from the native perspective.
Yet, a destroyed Onondaga is not the end of the Clinton-Sullivan Campaign story. The threat of famine imminent, Powless’s ancestors were saved by cicadas — more specifically, this region’s cicadas that explode in numbers only once every 17 years.
Two years ago, the 17-year cicadas had again returned. They jostled and buzzed in the woods on the reservation surrounding the fire barn. Powless vividly remembers the sound, that frightening sound of survival, a persistent hum that serves as a reminder: “We’re still here.”
Powless had been told about the blanket exercise by his wife, Michelle Schenandoah of the Oneida Nation Wolf Clan, who herself had recently been blown away by a session of the exercise at the Matilda Joslyn Gage house in Fayetteville.
The couple are now trained facilitators for the exercise, but it is only the surface of the work they do both individually and as a team to bring deeper understanding of the land and its native people into the mainstream.
For example, Powless has traveled and spoken internationally for 25 years to raise awareness for indigenous values; Schenandoah founded Rematriation Magazine to empower indigenous women in reclaiming their identity and to bring to light the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women.
They also co-founded Indigenous Concepts Consulting, through which the duo assemble lectures, workshops, and advising intended to share their culture’s core teachings and how they can be applicable today throughout society.
Schenandoah and Powless navigate the modern re-framing of their teachings together, often through deep conversation shared over hours-long car rides to various events.
The story of their marriage is itself a story for the ages — at least in the eyes of Michelle’s mother, Oneida Faithkeeper Diane Schenandoah, who is currently working on a screenplay that will tell the tale.
The Onondagas and the Oneidas have had a historically rocky relationship. During the American Revolution and the very same Clinton-Sullivan Campaign, controversy erupted between the two nations as the Oneidas took arms with the American Army.
As the legend goes, an Oneida man and an Onondaga woman were married during that time of tension. The couple fled in a wooden canoe on Cazenovia Lake, but the boat capsized and remains under water to this day.
More than 200 years later, Powless and Schenandoah married on June 6, 2015 and held a healing ceremony that morning on the same lake’s shores.
As part of the ceremony, the couple gave a traditional offering of tobacco, which is associated with giving thanks and sending prayers to all creation.
The couple continue to strengthen that connection and often introduce themselves to waters whenever they travel.
“I feel like I have to do something,” Powless says, standing on the shore of Onondaga Lake. Removing his right glove, he kneels on the rocky beach. He cups the water in his hand and then releases it, repeating the motion as he looks across the water’s surface and offers two silent prayers of renewal.
This impromptu ceremony marks the first time he remembers being able to physically touch the water. It seemed fitting for the site where, as oral tradition tells, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy was born over 1,000 years earlier.
Understanding his roots
In his hand he had one pencil, and he snapped it. But then he took six pencils, and he couldn’t. As one you are weak, but together we are strong.
William Dempsey, a current high schooler at East Syracuse Minoa Central, recalls this story, a particularly memorable one from Coach Powless on the sidelines of a lacrosse match.
It is a favorite of Powless’s, the symbolism of the bound arrows from the Peacemaker who united the original five nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, “the people of the longhouse.” The Peacemaker is told to have planted the Great Tree of Peace at Onondaga, the “Central Fire” of the confederacy, under which the warring nations agreed to bury their weapons, greed, hatred, and jealousy.
The strength of the bound arrows is a symbol whose influence Powless sees in the 13 arrows gripped in the left talon of the eagle on the seal of the United States, just like the influence he sees on the founding fathers and in the U.S. government from millennium-old Haudenosaunee democracy. To Powless’s dismay, the Greeks usually get all the credit.
Lacrosse, too, has its own roots with the Haudenosaunee. Deyhontsigwa’ehs, also known as the Creator’s Game, is in part responsible for peacefully bringing together the five nations at the confederacy’s founding.
The Haudenosaunee continue to play the game today with the same connection between the sport and spiritual healing.