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Doug George-Kanentiio: What does it mean to be Mohawk today?

Filed Under: Opinion
More on: doug george-kanentiio, mohawk

In these days of rapid, often overwhelming change the need to be anchored in culture and community becomes critical. If one is stand against these technological and social waves there must be ideas, rituals and beliefs which are so deeply rooted as to weather those forces which would otherwise leave us as transients without substance or meaning beyond the immediate.

For the Mohawks we have been fortunate in having the essence of a common identity in place and over the past generation have taken steps to ensure we continue as a people. We have had the wisdom and passion of teachers, leaders and political activists who became advocates for preserving our heritage; it is their refusal to make compromises to the so-called dominant societies around us which has enabled each and every Mohawk to enjoy their current lifestyles.

Where would we be now if our instructors, our advocates, our teachers had given up? We would not have our territory, our language, our homes or our families. They did not buckle and so we have a homeland worth defending. Sadly, we do have those willing, even eager, to give up on our territorial rights in exchange for temporary material gain citing the shallow argument that if we do not act now we will get nothing.

Dignity, integrity, honest and righteousness mean something beyond money; they are values worth passing on to those yet unborn.

Who are those special people in our recent history, those who urged us to stand strong, to not only defend but promote the best of what it means to be Mohawk? We have had the tangible benefit of teachers like Ray Fadden, Jake Swamp, Ernie Benedict and Ron Lafrance Sr. We have had artists such as Brad Bonaparte, Louis Hall and Gesso Thomas to give visual expression to our culture. We have been fortunate that the late historian Salli Benedict dug deep into the memories of the people then supplemented what she was told with physical documentation. We have a chance to reclaim 22,000 acres of lost land in the Dundee area because of the work of the late Ms. Benedict.

If we were to summarize what they believed we could come up with at least ten elements characteristic of the Mohawks by which we have endured. They can be said to answer the question of what is a Mohawk.

1. Mohawks are a distinct people whose identity is tied to a specific part of the earth. Because they know from where they come they accept the duty of defending that land in trust for those whose faces are yet in the earth. No external agency has the authority or the power to separate us from what is our aboriginal right. To be a Mohawk is to never abandon our relationship with the earth or that which lives upon her.

2. Mohawks have a deep abiding affection for the natural world. They study the movements of other species and are at ease with the world. They believe that every element of Creation has a natural right to exist and that which is taken or used must be show gratitude and thanks.

3. A Mohawk never takes more than is necessary. Mohawks are not bound by a fixation on materialism but believe that they are obligated to leave this earth better at their leaving than when they were born. Nothing a Mohawk does should in any way qualify the rights of the unborn.

4. Mohawks have standing in the world, they are citizens of a nation which is equal to all others. They have a government, a land area, a culture which is theirs alone.

5. Mohawks stand in defense of their nation and will oppose any and all compromises in their national status. They will not permit outside governments, schools or institutions of any kind to decide who they are or how they should live. A Mohawk is ready to take an active part in any action which is meant to protect their homeland.

6. A Mohawk is humble before their elders, fierce in protecting their families, dangerous when provoked. Good health is an important part of a Mohawk's heritage for cleanliness of body is a necessary part of a rational mind.

7. Mohawks know that every person has a special gift, that each child is a blessing,that women as lifegivers are never to be abused or denied what they need to fulfill their duties. It is the obligation of a Mohawk to nurture our specific talents and never compel a child to be other than what is their destiny.

8. Mohawks stand tall before the world because they know their history, have studied their past and mastered those skills which enable them to survive in any environment. They have knowledge as to plants, animals, birds, trees, natural medicines, water, air and wind. From this comes common sense and the confidence to survive while others fail.

9. Mohawks are physically fit. They can run farther, swim faster and play longer than their opponents. They are naturally athletic and have a passion for competition but when they win are gracious and kind. Their sense of hospitality and generosity is unique and without qualification to anyone who graces their homes.

10. Mohawks know their culture and their families. They can dance and sing with enthusiasm but without vanity. They are not afraid of taking on the biggest of challenges. They know how to control their fears and fulfill their dreams. They believe in the love of their ancestors. They are keen students of the world and are at ease wherever they may be. They emit confidence without arrogance. They can laugh at themselves but are bound to respect the integrity of others.

Such are the lessons from those who once graced this earth. While these are ideals there is nothing to prevent us from their complete realization.

Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is the vice-president of the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge. A former member of the Board of Trustees for the National Museum of the American Indian he resides in Oneida territory with his wife Joanne Shenandoah.

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