Iroquois Nationals Board Member Tonya Gonnella Frichner Passes

Article from Indian Country Today
By Gale Courey Toensing

Tonya Gonnella FrichnerA citizen of the Onondaga Nation, whose Snipe Clan name was Gowanahs, Tonya Gonnella Frichner left peacefully during the first hour of February 14, 2015 surrounded by family members and friends in her New Jersey home after a valiant decade-long battle with cancer. She was 67.

Being with Gonnella Frichner at the end of her life was a beautiful experience, Betty Lyons, Gonnella Frichner’s niece, told ICTMN. “I was laying next to her and holding her hand and it helped me to help her—and that’s how she was. She always made you feel good. Even in her death there was that generosity. She passed peacefully. Her husband was the most wonderful husband—he’s like a father to me. He made sure that she had exactly what she wanted right to the end—that she got home and had the peace of being surrounded with family. It was like a gift she gave to us to be with her when she passed. It’s not about what you do in this world, it’s about who you really are.”

In addition to who she was, Gonnella Frichner will be remembered for the extraordinary number of things she did with passion and skillfulness.

She was a lawyer and activist who devoted her life to the pursuit of human rights for Indigenous Peoples on a national and international level. From 2008 to 2011, she served as North American Regional Representative to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. In that position, her mandates included human rights, economic and social development, environment, health, education and media. Indigenous Peoples, nations, and non-governmental organizations nominated Gonnella Frichner to the position for her work in the international arena.

During that time, Gonnella Frichner served as vice-chairperson as well as the Special Rapporteur for the “Preliminary study of the impact on Indigenous Peoples of the international legal construct known as the Doctrine of Discovery,” which was written by ICTMN columnist Steve Newcomb and submitted to the UNPFII, Ninth Session in 2010.

Gonnella Frichner served as an active participant and legal and diplomatic counsel to Indigenous delegations in virtually all United Nations international forums affecting Indigenous Peoples especially during the drafting, negotiations and passage of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which was overwhelmingly adopted on September 13, 2007, by the UN General Assembly. The Declaration sets the minimum standard for the survival, dignity and individual and collective rights of Indigenous Peoples globally.

Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in November for her lifelong work in support of American Indian rights, praised Gonnella Frichner, especially for her work on the Declaration.

“Tonya was a dedicated, focused and accomplished Native woman who worked tirelessly for Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Her contributions to the structure and content of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples are inestimable,” Harjo said. “She is one of those irreplaceable people, who will be missed and long remembered. Only Mother Earth Endures.”

Gonnella Frichner was the president and founder of the American Indian Law Alliance (AILA), an indigenous, nonprofit, non-governmental organization (NGO) that works with indigenous nations, communities and organizations in their struggle for sovereignty, human rights and social justice. The AILA is one of only 20 indigenous NGO’s with special consultative status with the U.N.’s Economic and Social Council. Lyons, a research associate at the AILA, said her aunt’s work will continue.

“She worked us like dogs, I’m telling you! And she worked harder than all of us,” Lyons said, laughing. “We are certainly committed to continuing her work; she asked that of me and I made that promise to her. We are going to continue in our struggle to advance our causes. We’re all committed at the law alliance to make sure that that happens.”

Gonnella Frichner was also a professor of American Indian history and law, Federal Indian Law, and anthropology and human rights for over 20 years. She taught at The City College of the City University of New York (CUNY) and Manhattanville College for eight years, as well as CUNY Hunter College and New York University. She also served as an Associate Member of Columbia’s University Seminar on Indigenous Studies.

Gonnella Frichner served on several boards including serving as the chairperson of the Seventh Generation Fund for Indigenous Peoples, the City University of New York School of Law Board of Visitors, the Interfaith Center of New York, the Connie Hogarth Center for Social Action, the Seven Eagles Corporation, the Flying Eagle Women Fund for Peace, Justice and Sovereignty, the International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism, the Boarding School Healing Project, and the Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse Team, the official national team of the Haudenosaunee since 1984.

Gonnella Frichner was showered with awards and accolades for her work. She received the Drums Along the Hudson award in June 2014, shared with the Honorable David N. Dinkins, the 106th Mayor of New York City. Other awards include the Harriet Tubman Humanitarian Award, the Thunderbird Indian of the Year Award, the Ellis Island Congressional Medal of Honor, the American Indian Community House International Service Award, the Silver Cloud Singer Outstanding Service Award for advancing Indigenous Youth, the Ms. Foundation Female Role Model of the Year, which was shared with author J.K. Rowlings, and the Mosaic Council, Inc. Visionary Award for Making a Difference, which was shared with entertainer Queen Latifah.

Other honors included the New York County Lawyers Association Award for Outstanding Public Service, the Ingrid Washinawatok El-Issa O’Peqtaw Metaehmoh – Flying Eagle Woman Fund for Peace, Justice, and Sovereignty Award, the Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse Team Recognition, a City of Philadelphia proclamation in honor of United Nations Day, for Frichner’s work to “promote the rights for Native people around the world,” recognition from the Temple of Understanding, recognition from the Beacon Two Row Wampum Festival, and the Alston Bannerman Fellowship.

On October 24, 2010, the 65th anniversary of the creation of the U.N., Gonnella Frichner addressed an audience at the University of Maine. She talked about how Indigenous Peoples got a seat at the U.N. table and their continuing struggle for sovereignty and self-determination. She thanked the audience members for recognizing United Nations Day, but noted that Americans largely view international issues as unimportant. “I don’t know if it’s because the U.S. is so isolated geographically and doesn’t think the rest of the world has anything to do with it, but it sort of acts that way,” she said, “The rest of us know that it’s never been that way and it’s never going to be that way, and once globalization hit in 1492, it hasn’t slowed down, it’s just accelerated and we are all interconnected and that is just the way it is.”

Calling hours will be held at the Ballweg & Lunsford Funeral Home at 2584 Field Lane in LaFayette, New York on Tuesday, February 17 from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Funeral services will be on Wednesday, February 18 at 10 a.m. at the Ballweg & Lunsford Funeral Home and at 11 a.m. at the longhouse. Internment will be on the Onondaga Nation Cemetery, located on Route 11a.

Donations can be made to the American Indian Law Alliance to carry on Gonnella Frichner’s work. For more information on donations, email