Dr. Oronhyatekha: A Man of Two Cultures

Dr. Oronhyatekha: A Man of Two Cultures

Posted on November 22 by Michelle A. Hamilton in Interview
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We spoke with Michelle Hamilton, co-author of the biography of one of the first Indigenous physicians in Canada, Dr. Oronhyatekha.


DUNDURN: How did you research your book?

MICHELLE HAMILTON: My role was to find the archival sources that remained. For example, I knew from co-author Keith Jamieson’s research that, as a young man, Oronhyatekha attended Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. On a hunch, I emailed the Kenyon archives to see if they had any material Old Kenyonabout him, or more generally what it was like to be a Kenyon student in the 1850s. To my surprise, the archivist told me that Oronhyatekha was considered one of their most prominent alumni! So I decided to drive from my home in London, Ontario, down to Gambier. Not only did I get to see and touch the books that recorded his grades and the times that he met nightly curfew, I walked the grounds of Kenyon and envisioned him there because many of the original buildings still exist.

As an historian and curator, I feel a sense of awe viewing documents and objects that have been preserved for decades, but digital resources are also important in research today. Entering Dr. Oronhyatekha’s name into digitized keyword-searchable newspaper databases in North America, Australia, and the United Kingdom generated approximately 1,000 newspaper articles reporting his activities. Many of the organizations to which he belonged – including the Independent Order of Good Templars and the Independent Order of Foresters – have also digitized their own publications and are available online.


My role was complementary to Keith’s focus on oral and community history. The lengthy time Oronhyatekha spent at Six Nations of the Grand River, the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, and the Foresters had already generated many stories and memories and turned up objects that once belonged to the Oronhyatekha family.


D: Describe your ideal writing environment.

MH: I have a home office, but I prefer to do much of my writing outside on my laptop sitting in the sun on my verandah or back deck overlooking my garden. It is quiet and peaceful there and when I need time to ponder what to write next, or how, I do a bit of mindless weeding, and gather my thoughts at the same time. I revised most of my first book Collections and Objections: Aboriginal Material Culture in Southern Ontario and wrote much of Dr. Oronhyatekha in this way. After we had a full draft, however, Keith and I began to sit at his kitchen table or talk over the phone at length about the manuscript. Our conversations and questions helped us to confirm or revise our interpretations.


D: Were there parts of the writing process that terrified you or left you exhilarated?

MH: It is a great responsibility to interpret someone else’s life and achievements, especially when that individual forms part of the collective memory of a community, or in Dr. Oronhyatekha’s case, many communities. Six Nations of the Grand River, the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, the city of Toronto, and fraternal organizations such as the Foresters consider him an important part of their own histories. I can only hope I have served his memory well and presented him as he was seen during his lifetime: a multi-dimensional, complicated, flawed, frustrating, eccentric, slightly arrogant, inspiring, accomplished, and controversial figure, and one who had to deal with the institutional and societal racism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


D: In your own work, which character are you most attached to and why?

MH:It would be impossible to choose anyone BUT Dr. Oronhyatekha. He was just too fascinating a man. However, I wish knew more about his wife, Ellen, and his children, Acland and Bena. They appear briefly in the remaining documents and photographs as sad and troubled individuals in contrast to the common portrayal of Dr. Oronhyatekha as hearty, charming, and a lover of practical jokes.


Michelle A. Hamilton

Posted by Dundurn Guest on December 6, 2014

Michelle A. Hamilton

Michelle A. Hamilton, Ph.D. is director of public history at the University of Western Ontario, and award-winning author of Collections and Objections: Aboriginal Material Culture in Southern Ontario. Hamilton is a specialist in 19th-century Canada, including Indigenous history and colonial relations. She lives in London, Ontario.