Syracuse University Magazine

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Photo courtesy of The Huston Smith Reader. © 2012 by Huston Smith. Published by the University of California Press



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Reflections on a Beloved Friend of Native Peoples

By Doug George-Kanentiio

It is the custom of the Mohawk people to acknowledge those we call the Enlightened Teachers, the ones who give us guidance and assurance in times of change. Dr. Huston Smith H’99 died on December 30 in Berkeley, California, in his 97th year, an Enlightened Teacher in the best Iroquoian sense, recognized around the world for his knowledge, his advocacy, and the clarity of his insights into what constitutes human spirituality.

Born to Methodist missionaries in China, he returned to the United States to study religion. His journey took him from the Suzhou to the University of Chicago, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Syracuse University, and the University of California, Berkeley. He wrote The Religions of Man, which later became The World’s Religions, now the standard text for the study of organized spirituality. In 1996, he was interviewed by Bill Moyers on PBS for the five-part series The Wisdom of Faith, perhaps the most inclusive and intelligent summation of the world’s religions ever broadcast.

Huston was devoted to his friends. I was part of his circle, having known him since I took his class while a sophomore at Syracuse in 1978. Freida Jacques ’80, a clan mother of the Onondaga Nation, urged me to do so as she was also a student at SU and was impressed with his wisdom.

But while I sat in his class, expanding my knowledge about Rabbinic Judaism, Sufi Islam, Zen Buddhism, the Hindu Vedanta, or the elements of Nicene Christianity, I was concerned that the spiritual traditions of this land’s Native peoples were missing. Something had to be done.

On campus, we worked to remove the Saltine Warrior. During our efforts, I called upon the Onondaga Nation for its help. Using the traditional disciplines of respect, tolerance, and enlightenment, the Nation Council was able to persuade the University to abandon the mascot. I felt that SU could go further in its relations with the Iroquois so I arranged to have the Onondaga Nation Council invite Huston to the longhouse to see if there was a chance to exchange ideas.

Huston was forever changed by that meeting and the personal friendships he enjoyed with the Tadodaho Leon Shenandoah, clan mother Alice Papineau, and faith keeper Oren Lyons ’58, H’93. He was given insights into the sophisticated and complex elements that define Iroquois spirituality.

In spring 1984, Huston asked me to accompany him and a group of religion students around the world, to visit sacred sites and engage people of different customs in dialogues meant to promote understanding. We toured Rome, Istanbul, Jerusalem, Mumbai (then Bombay), Chennai (formerly Madras), Bangkok, Beijing, and Seoul. We met Greek Orthodox priests, Islamic Imams, Indian yogis, and Thai Buddhist monks. We were escorted to the catacombs beneath Rome, the Hagia Sophia mosque, the Dome of the Rock, a Hindu ashram, and temples in Thailand.

A few years later, Huston invited my wife, Joanne Shenandoah H’02, and me to attend the World Parliament of Religions in Cape Town, South Africa. Joanne set the tone with her opening song and Huston took the lead by having the Native delegates agree to share their experiences on video camera and in book form. The resulting text and film were titled A Seat at the Table and represent the fruition of Huston’s dream to ensure that indigenous spirituality was on par with the other “organized” religions.

Recently, I watched a video of Huston based on an interview he gave toward the end of his journey in this world. When asked if the demise of the body meant the termination of consciousness, he responded with an emphatic “no”: Life does not end with physical mortality, but is transformed into something else and that “else” has substance and its own self-awareness in a universe that now carries his light. 

Doug George-Kanentiio ’80, a graduate of the College of Arts and Sciences, is a columnist, an author, and an advocate for Native peoples.