Doug George-Kanentiio: Why ceremonies are vital to Mohawks

One of the privileges of being from Akwesasne is the ability to attend, and witness, the conducting of the 13 communal ceremonies which mark the lunar year. This, rather than the Gregorian calendar, was how the Mohawk people have always observed the passing of the seasons and is an extension of the Skywoman epic in which a part of the body of Tekawerahkwa (the daughter of Iotsitsisen (Skywoman) was elevated into the nighttime sky.

This event is not simply myth but the description of a physical act. Our native ancestors somehow knew that the moon was separated from the earth, a fact which western scientists have acknowledged as true based upon their form of astronomical analysis. In their lunar explorations the US space probes have also located water on the moon; had they asked our knowledge keepers this "discovery" would have already been known since the oldest of stories affirm the connection between earth and moon.

The recent observation of Satekoseron (Midwinter) is a continuation of rituals which predate the formation of the Rotinonsionni (Haudenosaunee) Confederacy over 800 years ago. Its importance was vital as it represented an opportunity for physical and spiritual renewal after months of diminishing daylight and confinement inside dusky longhouses. A casual observation of the movements of the stars and the lengthening of days were, and are, sufficient to celebrate. As with all Mohawk rituals it was important to express gratitude which is done through tobacco burnings, dances, music and the sharing of food.

Of the 12,000 plus residents at Akwesasne only a few hundred actively take part in the longhouse ceremonies. Most of us no longer cultivate the land, fish the rivers or hunt game so our dependence on the resources of the earth is filtered through others and our personal relationship with other species of life is now becoming secondary.

Midwinter, as with all ceremonies, is meant to remind us of our connection with the natural world and our complete reliance upon the earth's resources, or gifts. To do this correctly the best words must be spoken at the appropriate time and using a language which is indigenous to this region. Akwesasne is truly fortunate since there are enough Mohawk speakers who can recite the Ohenten Kariwatekwen along with the other speeches necessary for the ceremonies to be carried on.

The relationship between the spoken word and the world is significant. As was proven by the Mohawks eons ago, long before western science stumbled upon this fact, plants and animals, clouds and insects-all react to the human voice and Mohawk is the ideal means of intra-species communication in this region.

When plants hear Mohawk music, Mohawk prayers and Mohawk chants, they react in a positive way by extending their roots, growing leaves and blossoming into fruits. When birds and other animals listen to the same they become fertile and give birth. When the clouds bearing rain hear the drums they fly from the west to pour their precious liquid upon the land.

That is but one reason for attending the ceremonies.

We are bound to the world in the most intimate of ways and hearing the speeches, taking part in the dances or sharing the music is dynamic and satisfying. It also gives us assurance that we are part of an ancient, stable culture which pre-dates the Europeans and is firmly rooted in this land.

While all else around us is in transit and subject to disruptive and often disturbing changes based upon a transitory, stumbling society we are secure in knowing that the Mohawks have something which gives meaning, direction and sustenance. It also reveals another truth-the Mohawks belong and will endure so long as the culture is preserved even as other peoples will be defined by an acute sense of insecurity and self doubt.

It is important to attend the ceremonies because each person there is not simply a benign witness but an active participant either by taking a leadership role, by dancing, sharing food or being in a place where they may meet old friends and family. Every person also brings their experiences, their perceptions and their spiritual essence to the longhouse,, all of which lends to the power of the specific event. They are welcomed by their clan and kin, a place is set aside for each person as they become part of the whole.

Each person takes from the ceremony an affirmation of their heritage. They know that this is a Native gathering of profound cultural importance. It makes them distinctive in the world, it gives each person pride and makes them happy to know that of all things in the world the ceremony is at the heart of the Mohawk experience and enables them to travel about with confidence as to who they are and to the people to whom they belong.

There is no obligation to attend the ceremonies. What tales place inside the longhouse is not based on faith or coercion. There is no suspension of the senses or denial of the world around us. There are no promises of heaven, no righteous, jealous gods, no commandments or saviours. There is no eternal hell, no fear, no levels of sin, no indulgences or saints.

What is there is the desire by human beings to preserve our relationship with a conscious earth through rituals of gratitude and collective thanksgiving. How this is expressed is profoundly Iroquois-by singing, dancing, laughing, speaking, eating. We know there are many levels of awareness in the world and spiritual beings are all around, we know there is the greatest of love and darkest despairs but the ceremonies are life affirming and conducted in ways in which we can see and feel without secondary interpretations.

By attending ceremonies we are made aware of our obligations to each other and the world around us not by preachers but through direct, unfiltered action which makes us feel good and right as human beings.

There is, however, a legal and political element to this part of our culture.

At one time, and that time is coming, the alien forces around us will come to the Rotinosionni. As with the land claims they will demand that we prove our case for aboriginal sovereignty. They will ask us to speak Mohawk, to show them our culture, to prove that we are distinct from that which is around us.

Ethnicity will not be enough as the basic elements of nationhood require every claimant to show exclusive jurisdiction, a definable culture, a language, an indigenous government and a land base. Should we fall short in any category than the aliens will take action to deny the validity of the Mohawk people altogether.

Ceremonies should not be reaction to this intrusion but supported with even more enthusiasm since they make us stronger as individuals, as family, as a people. Maybe our singing and dancing will be enough to have our relatives in the sky to blow the dark clouded ones out of our way.

Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is the former editor of Akwesasne Notes, was a member of the Board of Trustees for the National Indian of the American Indian and the author of "Iroquois on Fire" among other books. He may be reached via e-mail: kanentiio@aol.com

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