Over the course of his life, Oronhyatekha did many things. He was a scholar, a CEO, a statesman, an athlete and a champion of women, children and minority rights.
Today, I am looking at this fascinating man who was known as Burning Sky, Burning Cloud and Peter Martin. As he never used the English name Peter Martin professionally or personally, I will refer to him as Oronhyatekha throughout this episode.
Born on Aug. 10, 1841 at the Six Nations of the Grand River near Brantford, Oronhyatekha was the sixth son of Peter Martin and Lydia Loft, and would be one of 18 to the couple. He was also the third cousin of famed Indigenous poet Pauline Johnson. The land he was born on had been granted to the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, at 950,000 acres, but in 1847 it was cut down to only 48,000 acres.
Oronhyatekha would be forced to attend the Mohawk Institute Residential School as a child, where he learned the skills of being a shoemaker. He was only able to return home for holidays twice a year, and he would run away from the school three times.
He would then attend Wilbraham Wesleyan Academy and then moved on to Kenyon College in Ohio. He would joke years later that he was always first in his class because he was just grateful to sit down for a rest and study after he had finished his chores.
Unfortunately, money was tight and he had to come back to Canada after two years in college. He would begin to teach in a school on a reserve near Belleville. It is believed today that Oronhyatekha had a photographic memory, allowing him to complete his education quicker than those around him. He would also take up acting and supported himself as a stage actor for awhile.
When he was 20, he was selected by the Six Nations to give the welcoming address to the Prince of Wales during his visit to Canada and the United States.
According to legend, Prince Edward was impressed with Oronhyatekha and urged him to attend Oxford.
The Brantford newspaper described this meeting, with dramatic flourish, in 1909, stating quote:
“Two 20-year-old lads stood facing each other on a Canadian Indian reservation one day in 1861, while around them crowded brilliantly uniformed officers, civic magnates and gayly appareled Indians. One of the boys was tall, slender, swarthy and was clad in the full regalia of a Mohawk chief. The other boy, slim, light haired of medium height, and arrayed in the uniform of a British colonel.”
In reality, it was likely the physician of Prince Edward, Henry Acland, who urged Oronhyatekha to attend Oxford and correspondence between Acland and Prince Edward seems to back this up. Acland was a teacher at Oxford and he would mentor Oronhyatekha and the two would remain friends for their entire lives. Oronhyatekha’s eldest son, Acland, was named for his friend.
In May 1862, Oronhyatekha went to Oxford and met Outram Marshall and the two became fast friends. Unfortunately, Oronhyatekha had to return to the Six Nations Reserve in June to clear his names of charges that had been made against him by missionary Abraham Nelles.
Back in Canada, Oronhyatekha married Karakwineh, also known as Ellen Hill. She was the great-granddaughter of Joseph Brant, a famous chief in his own right. Together, they would have six children, but only two survived until adulthood. Three children died early, while one son, Henry, drowned when the Victoria sank on Victoria Day near London, Ontario in 1881. Oronhyatekha’s wife would never recover from the loss of her son, and would pass away in 1901.
One year later, he enrolled in the Toronto School of Medicine and graduated in 1865 and earned his medical degree one year later.
In 1866, he served with the Queen’s Own Rifles at the Battle of Ridgeway against the Fenians who were leading incursions into Canada.
For the next few years, Oronhyatekha would practice medicine in Frankford, Stratford, Napanee, Buffalo and London, Ontario.
In 1870, he was established in the medical community and would become the first secretary of the Hastings County Medical Association.
In 1871, Oronhyatekha was a member of Canada’s National Rifle Team, competing at Wimbledon, earning nine medals in the process. One year later, he helped campaign for the Conservative party in the federal election in his local riding. This was when he met Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, who recommended he be appointed as the consulting physician for the Mohawks at a local reserve. He took the position and moved to Napanee in 1873 where he built a house for his family. According to legend, Macdonald offered Oronhyatekha a cabinet post, which he turned down.
In 1874, Oronhyatekha became the President of the Grand Council of Indian Chiefs, an organization made up of the Iroquois and Anishinaabe communities in Ontario. He would protest the Indian Act as leader, and he lobbied for the Indigenous people to gain the right to vote. He also felt that women should have the vote as well. The Montreal Gazette would report in 1885 quote:
“Dr. Oronhyatekha of London, a member of the Six Nation Indians, has addressed to the public a second letter on the subject of conferring the franchise upon Indians having the necessary property qualification, in which he satisfactorily disposed of the objections made to the proposal.”
In his letter, Oronhyatekha would state that the Mohawk had the vote 15 to 20 years previous but were forced to become, in his words, a white man, and they would petition to be restored to their previous Indigenous status. He goes on to say quote:
“For nearly 30 years the Government has been saying to us, become enfranchised and cease to be Indians and you can vote, with the result that of the 4,965 members of the Six Nations in Ontario, only one has left his people.”
In 1876, Oronhyatekha would be granted a license to practice Physic Surgery and Midwifery through the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario.
While living in London, Ontario in 1878, Oronhyatekha would attempt to join the Independent Order of Foresters. The organization only allowed white men and Orangemen to join.
Arguing his case, Oronhyatekha would say quote:
“You see you do not understand the constitution of the order. What you have quoted was only intended to exclude those who belonged to a race which was considered to be inferior to the white race.”
He would win his case and was admitted. As it turned out, that would be the best decision the Foresters would ever make.
Oronhyatekha would spend the next three years travelling around Ontario on his own expense to build up the organization.
In 1881, he became the Supreme Chief Ranger of Foresters, effectively the CEO of the organization, which provided insurance to its members. When he joined, the organization was $4,000 in debt and only had 369 members. He would hold the position for a record 26 years and completely revitalize the organization. He quickly introduced medical examinations for all would-be members, scrapped the assessment plan for the endowment scheme will, created regular premiums based on age and built up the reserves. He also added a disability benefit, something that was essentially unheard of at the time.
Eventually, Oronhyatekha would abandon his medical practice in order to devote his energies completely to the organization.
Oronhyatekha had a flair for showmanship and that helped him gain fame, which allowed the Foresters to prosper as well. Oronhyatekha would claim to have a standing invite to visit Queen Victoria, for example.
In 1899, Oronhyatekha moved to Toronto to work at the headquarters of the Foresters Organization. Living in Toronto, he would build a large house that still stands to this day. As a man who was six-foot-three-tall and weighed over 250 pounds, the home was built for his large frame including 11-foot ceilings and nine-foot doors.
Under the leadership of Oronhyatekha, he was able to make the organization one of the wealthiest fraternal financial institutions in the British Empire. The foresters headquarters was also, when it opened in 1897, the tallest building in the British Empire and used electric elevators, lights and had a large electrical plant in the basement. The cornerstone for the building was put down by the Earl of Aberdeen in 1895, the Governor General of Canada. The building was built with trisected brick firewalls, and its baseboards were of sheet steel. All the wooden doors were sheathed in molded steel. High-pressure fire hydrants were mounted on the roof in case of a fire.
Macleans would write in 1951 quote:
“He dressed up an old-fashioned burial society with card games, cake and coffee and built it into a rich insurance business in its own skyscraper.”
He would even come up with the slogan for the organization, “Insurance plus Fraternity.”
In 1894, he would write History of the Independent Order of Foresters.
By the time he left his position, the organization had grown from less than 400 members to a membership of 250,000 with an insurance fund worth over $10 million. He would say in 1906 quote:
“We’ve money to burn and we burn it for the good of the order.”
While leading the Foresters, Oronhyatekha would establish one of the first museums in North America to be established by an Indigenous person. Located at the corner of Bay and Richmond in Toronto, it lasted until just after the death of Oronhyatekha. Within, there were artifacts from the various Indigenous peoples of Canada and other cultures around the world. In 1911, the artifacts would be transferred to the Royal Ontario Museum and became the founding collection for the museum.
Throughout his life, Oronhyatekha was a temperance advocate and he was a member of the American National Temperance Society and the Canada Temperance Union.
In the 1890s, Oronhyatekha purchased land from his wife’s family, a small island, which he called Foresters Island. He built a second family home here, and a place for the Foresters to meet. It also included a bandstand, the Isle Hotel and cottages for guests and a wharf that boats from the mainland could dock at.
Throughout his life, Oronhyatekha became friends with many important politicians including Sir John A. Macdonald, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, President Theodore Roosevelt and the Emperor of Japan. In 1902, he would attend the coronation of King Edward VII at Westminster Abbey.
In 1904, Oronhyatekha established an orphanage that would open in 1906 and he would consider this to be one of his proudest achievements. Sadly, he would not see it prosper.
Oronhyatekha died shortly after establishing the orphanage on March 3, 1907 following a meeting with president Theodore Roosevelt.
The Windsor Star reported quote:
“It is known that Dr. Oronhyatekha suffered for ten years from heart failure, which was the cause of his death. He was fully aware of his condition but gave no outward sign of his suffering.”
The Winnipeg Free Press Prairie Farmer would say of him quote:
“Among the prominent men of Canada who have been important factors in the social, political and financial progress and life of their country, none have taken such a unique position of distinction and had been more conspicuous than Dr. Oronhyatekha.
Upon his death, he would lay in state at Massey Hall, where 10,000 people came through to pay their respects to him.
The Victoria Daily Times reported quote:
“The remains were escorted by an immense procession past the Temple building in Massey Hall, where they will lie in state guarded by the Royal Foresters till Thursday morning, when they will be taken to Deseronto for internment at the old burying ground on the Mohawk reserve.”
Oronhyatekha is honoured extensively throughout Ontario. A plaque has been erected at Allan Gardens in Cabbagetown where he had lived in Toronto. A sculpture of Oronhyatekha can be found at the Foresters headquarters, and in 2001, Parks Canada designated Oronhyatekha as a national historic person.
A biographer would state he was quote:
“one of the strongest and greatest builders of fraternalism in America.”
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Macleans, Biographi, CBC, Wikipedia, Diocese of Huron, Heritage Toronto, Kingston Whig-Standard, Halifax Evening Mail, Windsor Star, Winnipeg Free Press Farmer, Montreal Gazette, Kingston Whig Standard, National Post,