Opinion

Doug George-Kanentiio: The Mohawk people at the time of Kateri





The Mohawk territory during the 17th century was over 11,000,000 acres or 17,200 square miles in size. It consisted of that land south of the St. Lawrence River (including present day Montreal) to the west branch of the Delaware River, east to the Lake Champlain-Richelieu River corridor, west to the West Canada and Unadilla creeks. This, according to the determination of the Mohawk Nation based upon centuries of active occupation and territorial enforcement.

The capital region of the Mohawk Nation was in the Mohawk Valley area. Their clan towns astride the Mohawk River were centers of social activity, diplomacy, trade and commerce. It was the most important access route into the continental interior other than the St. Lawrence River and while the Mohawks took advantage of their location it would also bring to them epidemics which threatened their survival more so than any military action.

Within this area the Mohawks had many communities characterized by longhouse style apartments ranging in size from 50 to 60 meters long and 4 meters wide. Each apartment was 3 to 4 meters long with individual hearth fires with a total of 20 families with anywhere from 4 to 8 individuals in one family with some apartments having two families.

Therefore, a good sized longhouse could well have over 100 people living inside. Order was maintained by the elder women of the community since all real property was under their control. This included not only the longhouses but the surrounding fields used for plan cultivation. A man’s possessions were restricted to his personal clothing, his tools and his weapons.

Iroquois society was unique in that women held vital and important positions of power. They controlled the communal wealth by overseeing the distribution of goods and the allocation of labor. They were adjudicators in family and communal disputes. They also controlled immigration, naturalization, adoption and held veto authority over capital punishment, banishment and corporal punishment.

Women served as iakoia:ne (clanmothers), selected by their respective clans in an open forum. They in turn controlled the nomination of the male leaders-the roia:ne-his assistant the rateron:tanon:ha-and his two faithkeepers: the female-iako:te:ri:hon:ton and the male: ro:te:ri:hon:ton. Since each clan (bear, wolf, turtle) had five leadership positions the Mohawk Nation governing council consisted of 45 individuals serving for life except when recalled or impeached.

The importance of the above is obvious: when Skennenrahowi, Hiawatha and Jikonsasay designed the nations they clearly meant to empower women. They saw that Iroquois society would maintain its stability and continuity only if authority, identity, language and culture were sustained by women since men were more apt to compromise their lives in hunting and warfare. The genius of the league was to vest its survival in those deemed the lifegivers. It would prove to the determining factor in the ability of the Iroquois to survive the violence, epidemics and social disruptions of the seventeenth century.

The feminine survival factor was a vital part of Kateri Tekakwitha’s life. She would have been born into a society confronted with challenges and profound changes. A generation before her birth in 1656 the Mohawks had a population, according to one estimate, of 8,000 people. That was greatly reduced to less than 2,000 by 1650, primarily due to war and disease. The implications for the Mohawks and for Kateri would have been catastrophic. When any human society is confronted with population decimation they adopt common responses.

After the initial shock the people will seek explanations as to the causes of the event from a physical and spiritual perspective. In the instance of disease they will respond with traditional treatment methods. Among the Mohawks smallpox and influenza were made worse by the intimate living conditions of the longhouses. The healers would have tried various methods to purge the disease through the application of natural medicines such as snakeroot to aide in perspiration and fevers while the area around the infected person was kept clean and warm. Later, as smallpox increased in its devastation isolation was tried with the sick person removed from the longhouse and placed in smaller dwellings.

Smallpox would also cause the Mohawks to leave their population centers in the Mohawk Valley for areas within their aboriginal territories which not subject to as many epidemics. The Mohawks also connected the arrival of smallpox with the Catholic priests; they perceived baptism as expediting the deaths of those who were ill. The execution of the North American martyrs including Isaac Joques and Jean de Lalande in 1646 are typical reactions as the community searches for culprits; witness the mass execution of Jews during the Black Plague era in the 14th century when tens of thousands were murdered by western Europeans for “poisoning well” and others acts of alleged sabotage.

With the failure of traditional medicines and treatments there was a crisis in credibility both in terms of their own science and the governing institutions empowered to respond to the situation. Spiritual customs which were intertwined with the overall material well being of the community, would have also come under scrutiny which resulted in alienation and conversion to other disciplines.

At the time of Kateri’s infection in 1660 the Mohawks had been struck by smallpox repeatedly beginning in 1634, striking again in 1637, 1641, 1946-1647, 1655 and 1661-1663. The most vulnerable were children with the number of death numbering in the hundreds among a people who simply could not recover without adopting a policy of immigration and adoption on a massive scale. This may explain, in part, the Iroquois military ventures into other areas as a desperate action to recover from the epidemics.

Smallpox has the following physical effects on a person with varying degrees of intensity. First there is the infection itself resulting from inhalation of the virus. The spread would have been made easier within the close confines of the longhouse. An incubation period of 12 days followed by a minor fever, back pain and vomiting. Within 72 hours there are skin lesions followed by rashes and ulcers on the upper body and face. Fevers intensify and hemorrhaging begin as the ulcers burst.

A victim may die by drowning or suffocation as the discharge pours from their nose and throat seeps into the lungs. Soft tissue such as the eyes, ears and throat areas are especially vulnerable. Those few who survive may be blinded, scarred or made impotent and in the female instance incapable of bearing children. For Kateri in meant her eyesight was severely affected causing her to shy away from light while she had deep, disfiguring pockmarks. Kateri may have been made sterile by the disease.

In a society where most labor and social functions were outside Kateri would have been at a great disadvantage. Her role as a planter and harvester would also have been compromised nor would she have been able to take an active role in the spiritual rituals that were an essential part of Mohawk life. Her physical appearance would have made it very difficult for her to find a mate.

As a child she would also have endured times of isolation within her home as she had no choice but to stay inside away form the light. Without active interaction with her peers her childhood would have been introspective and detached. The loss of her immediate family to smallpox would have made her sense of solitude more intense.

Yet despite the losses incurred by the smallpox epidemics the Mohawks, and their Iroquois kin, did not retreat or merge into other nations. They continued to defend their territories and their culture with unmatched determination. Even as they were struck by diseases and attacked by opponents from the south, east and north the Mohawks endured. A critical part of this was the organization of the Mohawks as a complex, inclusive society that was able to absorb new technologies and peoples while adopting new political, military and diplomatic strategies.

Throughout the troubled 17th century the Mohawks engaged in a remarkable series of treaties and other compacts not only with the European colonial powers but with other Native nations. The Mohawks knew that their reduced numbers meant they could not sustain prolonged military ventures but by using their diplomatic skills they might not only secure their survival but retain their influence as a primary power in the northeast.

Kateri was affected by this. She lived through, as a child, the following events:

1659: Dutch- Mohawk treaty renewal at Kahnawake in the Mohawk Valley
1660: Grand treaty among Dutch and other native nations including the Susquehannas and the Mohawks
1664: Surrender of New Netherlands to the English
1664: First treaty made between the Mohawks and English
1665: Onondaga leader and peacemaker Garakontie advocates peace treaty at Quebec
1666: French and Algonquins attack the Mohawks in January and burn Kateri’s town
1666: Mohawks and Oneidas affirm peace treaty of 1665
1667: Montreal peace council between Confederacy and France
1673: Confederacy-Odawa peace treaty
1673: Dutch regain New Netherlands but surrender colony to England the next year
1675: England renews peace treaty with the Mohawks
1677: Peace treaty with Susquehannas and the Confederacy secures Mohawks southern borders
1677: Covenant chain alliance between Confederacy and England
1679: Treaty between Confederacy and New York, Maryland and Virginia

The facts of Kateri’s life are well chronicled by the Mohawk author Darren Bonaparte in his book “A Lilly Among Thorns".

She was born in the village of Ossernenon around 1656. Her parents and brother died in a smallpox epidemic in 1661-62. She was raised by her uncle, a Turtle Clan leader but without a formal rotiane (chief) title. She witnessed the burning of her community by the French in 1666 as well as the influx of hundreds of Native refugees into Mohawk territory.

While she resided in the Mohawk Valley the northern part of Mohawk territory was resettled. In 1667 an Oneida couple established a community called Kentake across from Montreal. Within a few years hundreds of Mohawks relocated there as did other Catholic Iroquois. By the time Kateri left to join her sister the community was rebuilt slightly to the west and renamed Kahnawake in 1676. Kateri arrived the next year after she had been visited by a priest named de Lamberville and been baptized at Easter, 1676.

Kateri’s life at Kahnawake was defined by her craftwork and her dedication to her new belief. Priests Pierre Cholonec and Claude Chauchetiere knew her as a determined celebrant. They observed her fasting and the mortification of her body, practices similar to the flagellants of the 14th century. She was a physically small person who sought to overcome pain by applying hot coals to her feet and believed she was sharing the tortures of Christ by inclining on a bed of thorns.

She had a close friend named Therese Tekaiakwentah who also shared the same deprivations as Kateri. In time, the demands on her physical self proved to be mortal and she died in 1680. Witnesses present at her death reported that her blemished skin became smooth and she turned white. Since this was verified by many people it was said to be her first miracle. She was interred at Kahnawake.

Kateri quickly became a symbol for other natives. Her second miracle accepted by the Vatican was when a man named Joseph Kellogg was cured of smallpox and her third occurred in 2006 when a Lummi boy named Jake Finkbonner was able to overcome flesh eating virus after prayers to Kateri.

Kateri was declared venerable in 1943, beatified in 1980 and will be canonized this year.

Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is a co-founder of the Native American Journalists Association, a former member of the Board of Trustees for the National Museum of the American Indian and the author of many books and articles about Native history and current issues. His latest book is "Iroquois on Fire". He may be reached via e-mail: Kanentiioaol.com. Kanentiio resides on Oneida Iroquois Territory in central New York State.

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