Chief Irving Powless Jr. is seen in 2010 with the Two Row Wampum Belt, a representation of a treaty between the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and the Dutch government. Photo: Mike Greenlar / Syracuse Peace Council

Doug George-Kanentiio: Onondaga Nation Chief Irv Powless passes on at age 88

Onondaga Nation Chief Irv Powless Moves on to the Spirit World

By Doug George-Kanentiio

Chief Irving Powless Jr., Daha‘tgatdohs, Beaver Clan Chief, 88 years old of the Onondaga Nation died Thursday. He was born in Syracuse, the son of Chief Irving Powless Sr. and Cecelia (Tarbell) Powless who were active members of the Onondaga Nation.

A member of the Onondaga Nation Council, Chief Powless (Jr.), established an enduring legacy for his exceptional kindness and command of traditional law. He was an expert on Haudenosaunee and Onondaga treaties and shared his knowledge with ease and enthusiasm as a chief for his nation for nearly five decades.

He was fortunate in having the deep love of his wife, the late Helen (Jacobs) Powless, the support of his family and the universal respect of Native people across the continent. He was a man of exceptional natural gifts not the least of which was his famous quick wit, dry humor, and his ability to restore clarity and peace in times of stress. In return, he was a leader admired and loved across the Confederacy.

Armed with the knowledge of his people’s treaty rights, he fought New York State and won, establishing the non-taxable status of the Haudenosaunee. He was active in research and action on land claims that included the U.S. government’s restoration of Onondaga Nation lands and upholding their treaty obligations. He never wavered in his belief that the Onondaga Nation and the Haudenosaunee were independent peoples with the absolute right to self-determination.

Chief Irving Powless Jr. Photo: Bill Wallauer / Syracuse Peace Council

Chief Powless was appointed as one of three delegates, alongside Faith Keeper Oren Lyons and (late) scholar, John Mohawk, by the Haudenosaunee Grand Council to speak about Haudenosaunee principles to the world. He was a scholar, author, avid hunter and leader who provided for his children and for those in need. He worked with the Onondaga Nation Council to obtain an addition to the Onondaga Nation School, a new health center on the Nation and to return sacred objects and wampum belts from museums to the Onondaga people.

He published several books, including his latest, “Who are These People Anyway?” A public lecturer and advocate for his people, he wanted the public and governments to have a better understanding of Native peoples.

A proud member of the CNY Chapter Lacrosse Hall of Fame, Chief Powless was a founder and lacrosse player for the Onondaga Athletic Club. He took great pride in being able to say that he was the only man to knock down Jim Brown in a lacrosse game.

He served in the U.S. Navy alongside his brother, Everette Powless, on the USS Randolph. He retired from Conrail in 1989 after 30 years of service.

During his eight decades of life he lived through the greatest technological, environmental and social changes in human history. He is now on his journey into the spirit world where he will be escorted back to the Creator's land and met by Helen and his loved ones who have passed before him.

He is survived by his daughter, Nancy Powless and sons, Barry, Bradley (JoAnne), Neal (Michelle), two sisters, Phyllis Farmer, Beverly Powless and predeceased by his brothers, Hubert and Everette Powless. He has 10 grandchildren and 8 great-grandchildren and several nieces and nephews.

Calling hours took at his home on Hemlock Road on the Onondaga Nation, Friday and Saturday. Funeral services were held Sunday morning at the Onondaga Nation Longhouse.

Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is the vice-president of the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge. He has served as a Trustee for the National Museum of the American Indian, is a former land claims negotiator for the Mohawk Nation and is the author of numerous books and articles about the Mohawk people. He may be reached via e-mail at: or by calling 315-415-7288.