Observations on Korea: An Iroquois perspective

Story/Photos by Doug George-Kanentiio
News From Indian Country
My wife Joanne Shenandoah and I were by no means the first Iroquois people to visit Korea as we had been preceded by hundreds of others, mostly those in the U.S. and Canadian armed services. We felt that our presence there was to carry to the Koreans the music of the Iroquois as a way of commemorating the sacrifices our people had made in defense of the independence of South Korea 56 years ago.

During that time, and in particular the past decade, South Korea has made spectacular material gains as its economy grows much faster than that of Canada or the U.S. Within a few short years South Korea has become the largest ship building nation in the world while pressing the Japanese in the number of cars sold overseas.

It ranks second in microchip manufacturing and sells billions of dollars worth of electronics. It’s capital of Seoul is a city of over 10,000,000 and is among the cleanest and most efficiently managed anywhere, comparable to Toronto, Berlin or Paris. It is far safer than any American city, its residents able to travel anywhere on its elaborate mass transit system without fear.

Although a small nation, about the size of Indiana, its 48,000,000 people are clearly in good health, slender in build but as tall as most North Americans. For the week we were there there were no signs of obesity as the Koreans are committed to good health and rigorous exercise. They have universal health care and easy access to education of every level although the entrance exams to Korean universities are demanding. Korea is a highly technical country with most homes wired for the internet. Computers and sophisticated cell phones are universal.

Traveling around Korea is easy as the roads are in excellent condition and compare to the best U.S. interstates. There are no American or Japanese cars since they build their own. We observed only one Honda and a Volvo among the thousands of other vehicles on the road. The U.S. military maintains a force of 30,000 troops in South Korean, a presence which many Koreans see as an impediment to the securing of good relations with their relatives to the north. They do no believe Kim Jong Il, the dictator of North Korea, represents a serious threat to the south. They think U.S. President George Bush risks regional peace when he labels the North Koreans as one of the “axis of evil” nations. They believe trade, diplomacy and patience will lead Kim to open his country’s borders and dismantle his nuclear weapons.

Agressive and Skilled Businesspeople
The Koreans are aggressive, skilled businesspeople. They are as efficient and detail oriented as the Germans and make the most of their intellectual and physical resources. Most of them live in massive aparment buildings in and around Seoul but the other major cities of Pusan, Gwangju and Taegu have populations in the millions. Korea is now an urban nation with but a small percentage of its people remaining in its villages and towns.

While the land is hilly its bottom lands are heavily cultivated. There are tens of thousands of greenhouses producing the massive amounts of food the Koreans consume. Their diet is generally free from red meat, wheat products and dairy so they do not have diabetes or weight related illnesses. Not many of them wear glasses or are bald. They dress well, although much more conservatively than in the U.S. They take pride in personal hygene and being carefully groomed. The Korean women are not obsessed with the western version of “beauty” and only rarely does one see bleached hair.

Koreans are given to generosity. They are delighted to share their meals with visitors and take time to explain their cuisine. They eat a lot of rice and seafood along with leafy, dark green vegetables and mushrooms of many kinds. They use small bowls and plates and use chopsticks to select from at least a dozen dishes in the center of the dinner table. They take only as much as they eat. Beverages such as a light Korean ale are popular as is a ginger ale they call “cider.” The only American “food” product readily available is Coca Cola. U.S. wines are very expensive and therefore quite rare.

There are no great forests in South Korea, nor is there any wilderness comparable to what we have in Anowarakowa (Great Turtle Island). In the one park we stayed in the trees were small, none of which exceeded 15 meters in height. Whatever lumber they need is imported from Canada, as is much of their beef. The Koreans are devoted hikers, with entire families walking along the park trails during the weekends. The parents of Korean children are protective but they do not raise their voices or cause the child shame by appling discipline in public. The nation is using much of its new wealth to protect its few natural resources including the Jiri Mountains, Jeollanam-do Province, in the south central part of the country.

We stayed near the nation’s most acclaimed Buddhist Temple, the HwaEom, located on the southern slope of the Jiri Mountains (a ridge of hills comparable to the Catskills). Joanne was asked to perform in the centre of the temple as a guest of the head monk Jongsam. She was one of four performers from outside of Korea. The event was called the “HwaEom Spiritual Revival,” a traditional music festival organized by Park Chi Um, one of the most famous of Korean musicians as well as a leader of the 1980 student protests which laid the groundwork for democratic reforms in the country.


Mr. Park also invited Jennifer Berezan of Canada, Manish Vyas of India and Dechen Shak-Dagsay, a Tibetan singer now living in Switzerland. Each one of the artists was accompanied by the Korean groups Baramgot and Puri, accomplished musicians who had spent days reviewing and rehearsing select songs from their four guests. Also joining the main performers was Cho Soon Ae, a legendary 89-year-old female singer respected throughout Korea for her dedication to traditional music.

The event was held at the HwaEom temple before an audience of over 2,000. The temple’s monks used chants, a massive drum and a large bell to mark the outdoor concert, followed by Dechen, Shenandoah, Berezan, Vyas and Cho. The Koreans do not whistle or make excessive noise after a show but do clap with enthusiasm, as they did after each performer. Joanne was very well received as she spread a blanket of sage smoke prior to singing just as the wind diminished and the sun broke free from the restraint of the clouds.

After the show long lines of Koreans, now new fans, waited patiently to speak with the artists and offer their gratitude. They were fascinated by the Native presence as exemplified by Joanne in her white buckskin outfit, asking her when she will return to Korea.

Leaving Korea is not easy although the Inchon airport is among the cleanest in the world. They are so friendly and generous, hospitable and kind, quailities inherent in the traditional values of Anowarakowa’s first peoples. A formal alliance would seem most natural as would returning to embrace our new, true friends.