The December 2 passing of Maisie Shenandoah affirmed many of the traditions which have long defined the Iroquois as a distinct people who have retained their unique heritage since time immemorial.
Maisie Shenandoah was born on Onondaga Nation territory south of Syracuse. As is customary among our people her identity was affirmed as a member of the Wolf Clan, Oneida Nation, when she was given the name "Ia:koli:hon:ion:ni" (She Teaches). All Iroquois names come from a specific clan and are passed from one generation to the next at communal ceremonies. The naming of children is determined by the female leaders of the clans called "kon:tiia:neh:son" or clanmothers of which they are supposed to be nine among the Oneidas: three from each of the three clans (bear, wolf, turtle). A person carries the name until they die and it is then returned to the clan to be given to a newborn.
The clan names are vital for they not only secure clan identity but are believed to be the way in which a person is recognized by the natural and spiritual worlds. They are used at the political, social and ceremonial gatherings of the Iroquois and are essential when our traditional healers apply their knowledge to the curing of illnesses. Maisie made sure that all of her children also had clan names as did her grandchildren. This is one of the many ways she acknowledged her Oneida status for she knew that without this heritage all claims to aboriginal rights were irrelevant.
When Maisie died her physical body was returned back to "Iethi:ni:sten:ha O:hon:tsia" (The Earth Mother). The Iroquois believe our spiritual being came from another place said to be across a great path of stars in what is called the Pleiades cluster. Our physical selves was formed of this earth and we were give the breath of life from "Shon:kwia:te:son" our Creator, the Faceless One. It was designed that our bodies were made to fit this earth but our spirit would leave back to the stars once death in this world took place. Our spirits carry our life experiences to be shared at the place of our origin said to be a land where even the light lives and has awareness.
Those who remain on this earth undertake a series of rituals to insure the spirit's journey is not delayed or interrupted by excessive grief. There is a set number of days for mourning before we have to assume our normal responsibilities. The Iroquois have ten days for this in which the family and clan reflects upon their loss and is relieved of their duties which are assumed by the other clans. Since Maisie was of the wolf clan those of the bears and turtles cared for the family, prepared her for burial and conducted the formal funeral ceremony. At the conclusion of the mourning period a final gathering of the clans was held to disperse of Maisie's property and to release her spirit for her return home. As she leaves this earth she is escorted by her ancestors and will come to see the face of the Creator. She is not to be held back by clinging to anything material hence the dispersal of her possessions.
Throughout the three days preceding burial Maisie was watched over by many friends. It is believed the spirit takes time to adjust to the loss of the body and must not be left alone to avoid confusion. At the end of the three days the family, clan and friends gathered at the communal longhouse on Oneida territory. This log structure is without adornment and has two doors at either end. It was built at the urging of Maisie after she had become a clanmother in 1977 and dates from 1989. It sits along an east-west axis consistent with Oneida culture as it adheres to the path of "Ki:ionh:keh:neh:kha Ka:rah:kwa" our eldest brother the sun. When a funeral takes place the body of the deceased is brought into the longhouse from the eastern door followed by the mourners and, at the conclusion of the ceremony, taken to the cemetery through the west.
As a clanmother Maisie enjoyed great respect throughout the Iroquois Confederacy. As the Kontiianehson of the Oneidas she had the duty of nominating all clan leaders. She also oversaw the collective ceremonies which defined the 13 months which made up the Oneida year. She oversaw the naming of the children, resolved disputes and secured peace among the clans. She as the "I:sta:a" (mother) for all Oneidas. She was also a political counselor and a keen businesswoman who organized hundreds of events from powwows to school presentations. She was the face of the Oneidas in this region. During her wake and funeral people came from distant places to honour her passing. At her funeral the leaders of the Confederacy were present to share their sorrow over the loss of one of their own.
During the actual services speakers from the Mohawk Nation were thee to comfort the Oneidas, whom they consider their nephews and nieces. Sakokwanonkwas, a leader of the Bear Clan Mohawks, gave the main address in which he explained how we came to know death and what lies before us once we die. He spoke beautifully of Maisie's character and how excited people were to see her everywhere she went only to be saddened that she will no longer be with us. Yet he also described why she was given the gift of life and how we must carry on with her life's work as she would have us do. At the end of the services Maisie was taken through the western door to a family burial site on Peterborough Hill overlooking the territory she loved and where she dreamed of a homeland for all Oneidas.
At every instance the family and friends of Maisie Shenandoah affirmed her place within the traditional circle of customs and beliefs to which she adhered. Certainly, her ancestors would be pleased at the grace and dignity which marked the passing of an historical figure not only for the Oneidas but for all Iroquois.
Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is an editor, columnist and author. He is a former member of the Board of Trustees for the National Museum of the American Indian. Kanentiio is the author of three books including, "Iroquois on Fire", recently published by the University of Nebraska. He is the husband of the singer Joanne Shenandoah.
Related Stories:Maisie Shenandoah, Oneida clan mother, 1932-2009
(12/3) Maisie Shenandoah, Oneida
clan mother, dies at 77