Arts & Entertainment | National

Doug George-Kanentiio: Pete Seeger, Friend of the Iroquois






The late Pete Seeger with Joanne Shenanodah at Madison Square Garden in New York City. May 3, 2009. Photo from Thomas Donley

The world knew Pete Seeger, who died on January 27, as a human rights activist, a defender of the earth, an advocate for universal peace and one of the most prolific and creative musicians in American history. He was the composer of songs which have now become folk music standards: 'Where Have All the Flowers Gone", "Turn, Turn, Turn", "If I Had a Hammer", "Good Night Irene" and the civil rights protest ballad "We Shall Overcome."

From his youth he demonstrated compassion for the oppressed, traveling across the country with his five string banjo hitchhiking on backcountry roads or riding the rails. He visited mining camps and sang to labor unions. When he was condemned as a communist by the US federal government and blacklisted by the mainstream entertainment industry he went to the schools and secured a living performing at colleges and whenever an event called for a musician to rally the people.

He was a primary influence on Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Bruce Springsteen and thousands of others. He was a friend to Native people, making sure indigenous performers had a national stage to show their abilities. His Clearwater Festival attracted tens of thousands to the shore of the Hudson River, a waterway which was notoriously polluted until Seeger launched his movement to clean it of contaminants a generation ago. His sloop "The Clearwater" educated thousands of children on their environmental responsibilities by giving them a direct connection with the river.

Seeger cited the Mohawk teacher Ray Fadden-Tehanetorens as the man who turned his attention to the natural world. Ostracized by most other musicians during the 1950's Seeger found his way into the northern Adirondacks where he met Fadden. He was educated about Iroquois history and philosophy during sessions which included Fadden teaching Seeger a canoe paddling song. It was that song which Seeger performed in June, 2013 at the Clearwater Festival, one of his last public performances.

Seeger also encouraged Oneida Nation musician Joanne Shenandoah. She was one of his favorite artists. He shared the stage with her on many occasions including a remarkable set with the late Odetta ten years ago and in 2012 when he, Shenandoah and Patti Smith sang at Cooper Union Hall in New York City for a human rights event.

When asked last year as to which performance he wanted to attend he elected to hear Joanne Shenandoah, standing on the side of the stage for her entire hour long set.

Seeger was also ready to stand with the Iroquois on many issues. He did fundraisers for many Native groups. In 1988 he joined the late Floyd Red Crow Westerman to raise support for Akwesasne Notes at a concert in Albany, NY and last year lent his efforts to encourage the Two Row Wampum campaign.

Seeger's wife of 70 years, Toshi Seeger, died last July. Surviving the couple are their children: Daniel, Tinya and Mika along with his sisters Peggy and Barbara. He leaves eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is the vice-president of the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge. A former member of the Board of Trustees for the National Museum of the American Indian he resides in Oneida territory with his wife Joanne Shenandoah.