Storytelling — stories about Native American history as told by the people who lived it and not the abridged school textbook version — is part of Dave Kanietakeron Fadden’s makeup, his DNA. He is Mohawk.
Though he’d never in his life addressed a group, Fadden went ahead and listed “storyteller” on his resume when applying for a position as an educator for the Iroquois Indian Museum in Howes Cave, NY, in 1993. He got the job, and his first talk was to a busload of sixty third-graders.
“I told a horrible story,” he said. “My voice was quivering, but I remembered it, the story was there. Once I get rolling and the stories come out, it’s rewarding.”
Passing on the true story of Native Americans is a family business, started by Fadden’s grandfather, Ray, a schoolteacher who would have a student watch the hallway outside his classroom at the Tuscarora Indian School in the 1930s and later at the Mohawk School in Hogansburg so he could teach Native American kids a culture he believed was being suppressed.
“He took it upon himself to teach Mohawk children about who they were,” Fadden said.
Ray also started the Six Nations Indian Museum in Onchiota, a seasonal museum (now in its sixty-third year) passed down to and run by Dave Fadden.
Now, Fadden is the one continuing the stories he heard over a lifetime. He was shy as a teenager and young adult, but “got to the point I knew I was going to have to do it.”
What does he want people to know?
“We’re still here living in modern society but maintain our culture and identity,” he said.
He uses the museum, his talks, and storytelling to dispel stereotypes about Native Americans, reflected in the questions he hears, such as “Why are the Indians so warlike?” or “Do you still live in a tepee?” or “Why aren’t you wearing feathers?”
Starting with the first, Fadden explains that the Iroquois Confederacy’s political structure is designed to avoid war and exhaust all means of diplomacy before engaging in any conflict. In most cases, Fadden said, when there was conflict, the Europeans attacked first. And the Native American weaponry, he said, was nothing like the Europeans had.
“Our idea of war was almost like a rough sport,” Fadden said.
As for housing, the Indians lived in longhouses made of bark, with additions put on with each marriage. In this matrilineal society, the homes were owned by women. The men were the hunters and fishermen out in the world.
“Native women were pretty powerful,” Fadden said. “They could install or impeach the chief.”
Natives contributed much to the world in terms of agriculture and cultivating of crops and political thought and structure. The Iroquois Confederacy, which gives people a voice in their democracy, appealed to leaders like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, who were looking for a new way, Fadden said.
He continues to dispel myths through his artwork: portraits, paintings, and mosaics of Native Americans showing emotions other than “the stoic Indian.”
“Those are the paintings that sell,” Fadden said.
Photo of Dave Fadden at the entrance of the Six Nations Indian Museum by Mike Lynch.