The Onondaga Indians believed that one could not be loyal to both their traditions and way of life and the traditions and way of life of the Euro-Americans. One woman was able to walk the fine line between her native traditions and those of the Euro-Americans, and that was “Aunt” Dinah John. Dinah John was born probably in 1774 and died in 1883 . Dinah John grew up in the period after the American Revolution and faced many hardships, including the hardships of the Euro-Americans trying to swallow up the traditions of her people. Dinah’s story does have a happy outcome though, which is that of persistence, cultural adaptation, and survival in the face of overwhelming odds .
Dinah John was among the most prominent Iroquois women of the nineteenth century; she was a basket weaver and a potter in New York and was one of the first Iroquois women depicted in portraiture .
During the course of her life, the Onondagas went through many changes. As a child, Dinah John and the Iroquois lived through the period of the American Revolution, and it was said that she was old enough to remember the military expedition of Colonel Goose Van Schaick when his soldiers invaded the Onondaga country . The army moved in and killed at least twelve and took thirty-three Onondagas, mostly women who had been in a cornfield, captive . Later that year, men who were involved in the Clinton-Sullivan campaign came and finished the job that Van Schaick’s army started. The majority of the Onondagas fled to other reservations, but Dinah John had stayed in central New York.
Women’s roles in Iroquois society were not static like they were in Euro-American society in that ear. Sometimes, women’s roles were in direct conflict with Iroquois religious teachings. For example, Dinah John served in the War of 1812 although it went against the Code of Handsome Lake . She lived on the reservation but would often go to Syracuse to sell her handmade crafts, and would hire white lawyers to petition the government for a military service pension . The Euro-Americans did not see Dinah as a savage or immoral like they did with the other natives; they saw her as a “non-threatening, loyal American, a kind, dignified old Indian lady who bridged the “uncivilized” and “antiquated” world of the local reservation down the road with that of modern industrial Syracuse” .
Dinah John was a woman immersed in Iroquois culture, and she was a determined fighter. Growing up in the era during and after the American Revolution, she had to live in two separate yet connected worlds in order to survive. Women like Dinah John struggled in an increasingly threatening world but developed ways to survive for themselves, their families, and their Indian nations . Dinah John was so immersed in her Iroquoian way of life that she spoke Onondaga, rarely speaking in English except to sell her goods or to make small talk in broken English; she refused to take an oath to the U.S. Constitution, seeing herself as a Hotinonshionni citizen and ally of Washington . “Although she appeared to be a compliant “good Indian”, Dinah John remained a Hotinonshionni” in a world where everyone seemed to be assimilating or running away to form larger groups and live on reservations. Born in central New York, Dinah John remained in New York for her entire life.
Laurence Hauptmann, Seven Generations of Iroquois Leadership: The Six Nations since 1800, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2008).