Last Saturday, I traveled to Saranac High School to attend a celebration of the life of the late Ray Tehanetorens Fadden, known to many as Grandfather Ray, a term of respect and affection among Native Peoples.
Ray lived a very full life. He was an amazing storyteller, outdoor educator, teacher, illustrator, artist and caretaker of woodlands and wildlife. With his wife Mohawk Christine, he opened the Six Nations Indian Museum in Onchiota in the summer of 1954. Together, they became the caretakers of a culture.
It's easy to forget that from the 1950's to the late 1960's was the peak of television Westerns. It was a difficult time to be an Indian. The term, Native American, wasn't even a part of the language.
Indians were the bad guys, characterized as bloody savages. Only Tonto, the Lone Ranger's sidekick, was considered a good Indian and the cowboys always came to the rescue.
Ray will always be remembered as the man who helped the Iroquois, and many other Nations, to reclaim their culture. He accomplished this task in the old way, through the oral tradition of storytelling. He learned the tradition by visiting with Iroquois elders and collecting their stories over the course of many years. He passed this knowledge to his son and grandson. Both are accomplished storytellers.
Many locals considered Ray to be just another Adirondack character, like Bing Tormey or Jimmy Latour down the road. Yet Ray's life was much larger and his influence far greater. It extended far beyond the confines of Onchiota, the Adirondacks or even New York state. The Indian telegraph is far reaching. Mention Ray Fadden's name on a reservation in North Dakota or Arizona, Washington or Florida and eyes will light up. He taught Indians how to be Indians once again.
The benefit concert and tribute to Ray's life was organized by singer/songwriter Roy "Poncho" Hurd and other friends. I was hoping for a decent turnout as it was a beautiful, sunny day. I wasn't sure what to expect of the event, but as I pulled in, it became obvious that Grandfather Ray had many grandchildren. In the vast lot, I struggled to find a place to park.
Soon, I entered a packed auditorium and listened as speakers offered touching remembrances of a gentle, humble man who became a legend among not just the Haudenosaunee; but among many Nations.
Although I had visited with Ray numerous times over the years, I was struck with how little I knew of the man.
Many locals regarded him simply as that old guy smoking a pipe along the Onchiota Road. Others talked about his many bears and birds, of his skill as a wildlife rehabilitator or of his pet porcupine, Needles, a four-legged, pin cushion that always traveled with him.
Yet few knew how he had "kindled the fire of Mohawk nationalism among the youth and instilled them with a new sense of pride in being Indian."
Ray also educated many non-Indians. He spoke of the many contributions Indians provided to our society and government and dispelled many myths while shedding light on prejudice. Often these lessons were a bitter pill to swallow, but Ray allowed his guests plenty of time to chew. Personally, he always preferred a chaw of Red Man tobacco.
Mohawk parents told about trips from Akwasasne to Onchiota to visit the museum so that their children could learn to read wampum belts and pictographs. The children absorbed Ray's stories; learned their heritage and departed with a newfound sense of pride.
Performers included Roy Hurd, the Akwasasne Women Singers, who offered traditional songs, as well as Grammy Award winning singer/songwriter Joanne Shenandoah. But the most touching tribute of the day was offered by David Fadden, Ray's grandson. As he told stories of his childhood
, it wasn't just the stories that impressed me, it was the delivery. He grew up in the company of a master storyteller and it was obvious to all that he had learned the craft well.
Ray spent his last months at Iakhihsohtha Seniors Nursing Home in the Quebec portion of Akwesasne; but his legacy lives on with the commitment of his son John Fadden, his wife Eva and his grandchildren to continue his mission to instill pride among all Native Peoples in their heritage.