Two of the most creative Mohawk artists of our generation have now passed into the spirit world but not before leaving a powerful legacy of their life's work.
Peter Blue Cloud Willams-Aroniawenrate and Salli Benedict-Kawennotakie were exceptionally creative and gifted individuals whose writings and communal work deeply affected their generation and brought honor to the Mohawk Nation. Both exercised their skills in many mediums but it was through their poetry that they were able to express the essence of what it meant to be an aboriginal person in an era of provocative changes.
Aroniawenrate was a traveler, an observer, a master of rhythm and imagery. He, more than any other person, summarized what the 1969 takeover of Alcatraz meant for Native people through his extensive writings. He had music flow through his poems which were pure thunder and lightning. He took his Mohawk language with him wherever he went and with that delightful Kahnawake accent gave recitations of exceptional clarity.
When he returned from California he was hired by the Mohawk Nation to work as an assistant editor of Akwesasne Notes then as full editor from 1984-86. He brought his own style with him, making the publication not only a reliable source for news but a forum for other poets. He was a pleasure to work with and served the Nation with dignity.
Salli Benedict-Kawennotakie was, as everyone who knew her realized, one of the most intelligent Native people of her time. Her powerful intellect found expression in an amazing volume of work, whether as a poet, essayist or historian. She touched the lives of every Akwesasnoron whether as a co-founder of Radio CKON, an editor of Akwesasne Notes, a land claims researcher or as the director of the Akwesasne Museum.
She was greatly influenced by her father, the late Ernie Benedict, to work towards the preservation of her Mohawk heritage but was also given wonderful artistic talents from her mother Florence. She was as humble and generous as she was wise, encouraging to all who knew her yet given to laughter and a keen appreciation for anyone who had a story to share.
More than any other person Kawennotakie deserves full credit for the creation of the Akwesasne Communications Society which in turn established Radio CKON. When the station was operating out of the home of her brother Lloyd she realized that a much larger facility was needed and wrote the proposals which enabled the ACS to secure the funds to construct the center in Kanatakon. She was tenacious but diplomatic using her skills to secure an agreement with all three Mohawk councils to have CKON the only exclusively Native licensed radio station in North America.
But she was more than a person who made history she was determined to preserve it was well. Her labours as the lead researcher for the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne has resulted in the expansion of our knowledge as to who we are as a people while giving real substance to our land claims. She was involved with her dad's efforts to expand our culture and to reach out to other Native nations through the North American Indian Travelling College. She served, as a 20 year old, as the interim director of the NAITC prior to the hiring of Mike Mitchell.
Like Aroniawenrate, Kawennotakie was blessed with children and grandchildren. They leave families who were able to express their deep love for both of them.
Om a personal note I know I have been most fortunate to have known and worked with Aroniawenrate and Kawennotakie. It is deeply strange that this world will no longer have them with us. They were bright and compassionate, challenging and kind, not merely witnesses to their time but geniuses who defined this era for us all. We have lost their physical beings and can no longer hear their voices but the beauty of what they left for the Mohawk people is permanent and good. I extend my deepest gratitude to their respective families.
Doug George-Kanentiio, is an Akwesasne Mohawk. He is the co-founder of the
Native American Journalists Association, a former member of the Board of
Trustees of the National Museum of the American Indian and the author of
"Iroquois On Fire". He resides in Oneida Castle with his wife Joanne Shenandoah.
He may be contacted by calling 315-363-1655, via e-mail:
Kanentiio@aol.com or via surface mail: Box 450, Oneida, NY 13421
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