Dr. Oronhyatekha, (Burning Sky), also known as Peter Martin, a Kanyen’kehà:ka (Mohawk) became one of the first Indigenous persons in Canada to earn a medical degree on May 22, 1867.
Born in 1841 on the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve near Brantford, Ontario, to no surprise, Dr. Oronhyatekha’s journey to becoming a medical doctor was full of barriers put in place by racism and the Department of Indian Affairs at the time. However, the resilient and tenacious Oronhyatekha defied all odds.
As a young child Oronhyatekha initially trained as a shoe maker while he attended Mohawk Institute, a residential school run by the New England Company (NEC), an Anglican missionary society approved by the Department of Indian Affairs. From there, he attended Wesleyan Academy in Massachusetts, then enrolled in college in Ohio. Unfortunately, Oronhyatekha had to leave after only two years due to a lack of funds. He moved back to Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory to teach for the New England Company, where he met his wife Ellen.
In 1860 Oronhyatekha was asked to present a welcoming speech to the Prince of Wales, who was touring Canada that year. The prince’s personal physician, Dr. Henry Acland, and the aspiring Oronhyatekha struck up a friendship based on their mutual interest in medicine and Acland suggested Oronhyatekha attend Oxford University in England where Acland was a professor. After enrolling at Oxford Oronhyatekha was forced to leave after only a few months as his attendance was not supported by New England Company.
Despite all obstacles Oronhyatekha entered the Toronto School of Medicine in 1863. He sat the license exam administered by the newly established provincial College of Physicians and Surgeons and registered on May 22, 1867. In the following years, Oronhyatekha continued to face discrimination and was forced to move around the province in search of work as a physician. After being appointed consulting physician for Tyendinaga by the New England Company, he then became physician for the Oneida of the Thames, and opened a practice in downtown London, Ontario.
Perhaps Oronhyatekha’s greatest legacy was his work to advance the Independent Order of Foresters (IOF), an international fraternal organization that offered insurance to its members. As he moved up the ranks in the Order to eventually become Supreme Chief Ranger in 1881, he had a new Temple built in Toronto that stood 10 storeys high–it was the tallest structure in the British Empire at its time. He also established the Oronhyatekha Historical Rooms and Library at the Temple which held over 2,000 artifacts from around the world. On the island he owned off the shores of Tyendinaga, which he renamed Foresters’ Island, Dr. Oronhyatekha began building an orphanage for children of deceased IOF members, and intended that one of the existing homes become a seniors’ home for retired members.
Dr. Oronhyatekha died on March 3, 1907. After his death, he lay in state at Massey Hall in Toronto, where about 10,000 people paid their respects. Dr. Oronhyatekha’s work has been honoured in a variety of ways. In 1957, Ontario Heritage Trust erected a plaque near the Oronhyatekha family gravesite in Tyendinaga and close by another plaque declares him a person of national historic significance.
The IOF museum artifacts now reside at the Foresters Financial company headquarters in Toronto, and at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). In 2001, the ROM and Woodland Cultural Centre launched a major exhibit about Dr. Oronhyatekha, called Mohawk Ideals, Victorian Values: Oronhyatekha, M.D. Most recently, CBC featured Oronhyatekha on their original podcast The Secret Life of Canada. You can listen to it here.