America’s first allies

I’m in Washington, where I’ll be for the rest of the week. In honor of Independence Day, I’m sharing an excerpt from the Oneida Indian Nation’s narrative of their role as America’s first ally, and then John Paul the Great’s reflection on America from his 1995 visit in Baltimore:

Over two hundred years ago, near the site of the present-day Oriskany Battlefield Historic Site, there stood a thriving Oneida village called Oriska. In that village, Oneidas cared for their children and attended to their homes. They tended their crops, and stored the excess for the harsh winter months. They, like their colonial neighbors, lived their lives. Everything would change in a short time, however, as war came to the region and took its toll upon Oneida and colonist alike.

As with the other villages that comprised the Oneida Nation of over two centuries ago, the Oneida people lived under the fundamental principles of democracy. It was that belief in freedom that brought the Oneidas to the aid of the colonists during the Revolutionary War, marking the Oneidas as the United States’ first allies.

But it was not an easy decision. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy, comprised of the Oneida, Tuscarora, Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga and Seneca nations, could not agree at the onset of the American Revolution if they should war against the colonies. The Oneidas were opposed to any such hostility and because of their dissent unanimity among the nations could not be reached. Thus, the proposal to wage war as a confederacy against the colonists was defeated.

But just as the Oneidas had ties to their colonial neighbors, others within the confederacy had their own allegiances. It was therefore determined by the confederacy that each individual nation could decide for itself whether or not to engage in the war and on which side. The Oneidas chose the colonists.

“I often wish that I could look back through time and hear the words of my ancestors as they sat around the council fires deliberating on whether to join the colonists in battle,” said Keller George, Wolf Clan member of the Oneida Nation’s Council. “I wish I could listen to the wisdom of their arguments to join the United States and become its first allies.

“Our people have always made decisions based upon how it will affect the seventh generation to come. I know that the decision my ancestors made over 200 years ago, around those ancient fires, was made with the consideration for the faces yet unborn. I represent one of those faces and I thank my ancestors for their wisdom in choosing to aid this great country at its birth.”

Once the decision was made, the Oneidas, and their adopted brothers the Tuscaroras, entered the fray, fighting side by side in many crucial battles of the war…

John Paul the Great, speaking in Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore:

America has always wanted to be a land of the free. Today, the challenge facing America is to find freedom’s fulfillment in the truth: the truth that is intrinsic to human life created in God’s image and likeness, the truth that is written on the human heart, the truth that can be known by reason and can therefore form the basis of a profound and universal dialogue among people about the direction they must give to their lives and their activities.

One hundred thirty years ago, President Abraham Lincoln asked whether a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” could “long endure”. President Lincoln’s question is no less a question for the present generation of Americans. Democracy cannot be sustained without a shared commitment to certain moral truths about the human person and human community. The basic question before a democratic society is: “how ought we to live together?” In seeking an answer to this question, can society exclude moral truth and moral reasoning? …

Would not doing so mean that America’s founding documents no longer have any defining content, but are only the formal dressing of changing opinion? Would not doing so mean that tens of millions of Americans could no longer offer the contribution of their deepest convictions to the formation of public policy? Surely it is important for America that the moral truths which make freedom possible should be passed on to each new generation. Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought. …

Christ asks us to guard the truth because, as he promised us: “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free” (Jn. 8: 32). Depositum custodi! We must guard the truth that is the condition of authentic freedom, the truth that allows freedom to be fulfilled in goodness.

We must guard the deposit of divine truth handed down to us in the Church, especially in view of the challenges posed by a materialistic culture and by a permissive mentality that reduces freedom to license. But we Bishops must do more than guard this truth. We must proclaim it, in season and out of season; we must celebrate it with God’s people, in the sacraments; we must live it in charity and service; we must bear public witness to the truth that is Jesus Christ.

Catholics of America! Always be guided by the truth – by the truth about God who created and redeemed us, and by the truth about the human person, made in the image and likeness of God and destined for a glorious fulfillment in the Kingdom to come. Always be convincing witnesses to the truth.

Awakening the moral conscience (personally, and perhaps socially) is the most fundamental task that every generation in any society has for itself, but particularly in nations that claim an inheritance of independence and liberty—because the exercise of liberty always involves moral decision making.

This is what FDR was speaking to in saying that, “In the truest sense, freedom cannot be bestowed; it must be achieved.”