Brad Powless' dark hair is slipping loose from the ponytail that hangs nearly to his waist. His khaki shorts and dark green T-shirt complement his "kick off and go swimming" flip-flops. The windows are wide open at the Onondaga Nation School where he teaches, and it seems doubtful that the hills beyond the windows could be any greener or that the 39-year-old Powless could look any more carefree.
Thirteen years ago, his teaching career and life were barreling down the fast track. He had graduated from Nazareth, a small, well-regarded private college in upstate New York, and completed a graduate program at Pennsylvania State University. He was teaching in a moneyed suburb of Rochester in a coveted position and a long, successful tenure seemed all but stamped on his unlined forehead. Yet someplace else beckoned: A place where the median income is far less; a place where uneven roads disappear around wooded bends; a place only five miles from the traffic hubs of Syracuse's city center; a place that struggles to keep a handle on its trash dump; and a place that maintains its fire department with proceeds from tobacco sales. The story of this place stretches so far into the past that human memory alone sustains it. Yet its future seems so ripe with potential that a growing body of people finds hope in its precepts. It's a place that Brad Powless has always called home: the Onondaga Nation.
He came back so he could teach in a K-8 school where time is measured in 13 lunar months and where school children learn traditional dances on a wood floor inlaid with the image of a turtle representing Mother Earth, in a gallery lit by skylights high above. He came back so he could trace in the slate floor that rings this atrium the animal forms symbolizing each of the nine clans, including his own, the Eel Clan. He came back so he can recite with students each day the Thanksgiving Address and thereby fulfill the central tenet of gratitude. He came back so he could walk every day past a wall embedded with text from a 1613 agreement reached with Europeans that his Nation still honors. He came back to share a festival meal every spring and fall with people young and old whom he's known all his life, in a community where faith-keepers, chiefs, and clan mothers have a say in school hiring decisions.
Most of all, he came back because of an ambition held since high school, instilled by his mother, to return to this community and help it move into the future. "[She was] a driving force in my life and still is, even though she passed about five years ago," Powless says of his mother, Helen. In 1979, she was the Nation's first culture teacher, a job that he now holds. Both his mom and dad, he says, "taught me that if you always know who you are, that you're Onondaga, that will carry you far, and that was true." For Powless and others in this reservation of approximately 1,200 residents, reaching to the past is the road to the surest future.
That a culture even remains to be taught is due to elders of near epic determination who made sure it continued despite genocidal campaigns and policies aimed at obliterating their physical selves, their beliefs, and their practices. These are things that Powless shields his students from knowing just yet. "We don't think that's a good thing to teach kids when they're young," he explains. He won't teach, for example, about the 1779 Sullivan campaign, "a hard thing to appreciate," he says, even for his oldest students. But he will teach the Code of Handsome Lake, which emerged from the same era and helped the Nation survive the loss of most of their territory. He teaches the Onondaga way of reaching decisions and governance, practices that have been passed in an unbroken chain for more than one thousand years.