The Mohawk, or Kanien’kéha:ka (People of the Flint), are part of the Haudenosaunee (People of the Longhouse) Confederacy of Six Nations, known to the French as the Iroquois. While traditional Mohawk territory stretches north to south across what is now eastern New York State, the contemporary reserves that many Mohawk people call home lie mostly north of there, including Kahnawà:ke and Kanesatake in Quebec; Wahta, Tyendinaga, and Six Nations of the Grand River (which is home to all six nations of Haudenosaunee peoples) in Ontario; and Akwesasne, which stretches across Ontario, Quebec, and northern New York. There are also two independent Mohawk communities in New York State, Kanienkeh and Kanatsiohareke.
As the “eastern door” nation of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, Mohawks were the first to experience the impact of settlers moving inland from the Atlantic coast. Regardless, members of this nation have worked creatively against, within, and around the influx of settler influence, maintaining distinctly Indigenous cultures and communities. While Akwesasne has come to embrace a range of religious traditions (in addition to longhouse adherents, a majority of residents belong to Catholic or other Christian churches), elements of what is thought of as traditional Mohawk culture are laid out in well-known stories and prayers that have structured how Akwesasro:non (people of Akwesasne) have approached environmental health research, environmental cleanup, and the preservation of food culture. Among the stories and prayers that have been particularly influential are the Haudenosaunee creation story, the Ohen:ton Karihwatehkwen (Thanksgiving Address), the “one dish, one spoon” story, and the history of the formation of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy—including the establishment of the Kaianerekowa (Great Law of Peace).
The Haudenosaunee creation story, the Tsi Kiontonhwentsison, demonstrates the importance of women’s bodies not only as the basis of all human life but also as the source of original foods. Prior to the coming of Sky Woman, this earthly plane was dark, and covered with water. Humans lived in the Sky World above, illuminated by a celestial tree. The Tsi Kiontonhwentsison tells of a pregnant woman, Sky Woman, Otsitsisohn (Mature Flowers), who fell through a hole in the Sky World, bringing with her the seeds of strawberries and tobacco. As she plummeted toward the watery world below, birds caught her in their wings and laid her on the back of a large turtle. A number of water creatures attempted to bring up sediment from far below the water’s surface to support Sky Woman; the muskrat finally succeeded, but perished in the process. Sky Woman spread this sediment over the turtle and danced in counterclockwise circles to enlarge the land surface. She gave birth to a daughter, Iakotsisionite (She Has a Flower on Her), who matured and was impregnated by Rawenhontsiowaikon (Turtle Man). Iakotsisionite in turn gave birth to twin sons, the good-minded right-handed son, Sonkwaiathison (He Made All of Our Bodies, or Creator), who was born naturally, and his contrary left-handed brother, Sahwiskeh:ra (Flint), who insisted on making his own entrance through her armpit, killing her. Sky Woman covered her daughter’s body with a mound of soil, and from it sprouted tobacco and strawberries, from seeds that she had grabbed from the celestial tree before her plummet. In addition, her body produced corn, beans, and squash, the “three sisters” crops that would sustain the Haudenosaunee and other nations of the Northeast. The two brothers fought constantly, Sonkwaiathison forming plants, animals, and humans in his image and his brother corrupting them. Sonkwaiathison gave ceremonies to the people to celebrate all that they were thankful for, and so they would remain triumphant over his brother, Sahwiskeh:ra. These ceremonies are still practiced in Haudenosaunee longhouses, and many are based on the horticultural cycle, celebrating events around maple sugaring, seed planting, strawberries, string beans, green corn, and the fall harvest. Some aspects of the ceremonies reflect qualities of the plants being celebrated: as Mohawk midwife Katsi Cook described to me, when the women dance during ceremonies, they “weave like bean runners.” This horticultural tradition that began in the body of Sky Woman’s daughter continues to shape Haudenosaunee culture today.
Akwesasne residents still relate the importance of taking part in the growing cycle to the creation story. One woman, Gina, described to me how her father would instruct her in growing, based on this story:
He’d tell me plant three seeds, one for the birds, one for the Creator, and one to grow up. And then he’d make me dance around it and—I guess that was his way of giving thanks or praying, saying “Please grow” . . . and then as I got older and I read the creation story and that’s what it says in there that she danced around and Mother Earth became bigger and bigger.
As a man who plants extensive gardens in Akwesasne explained to me, “We relate everything to the creation story. Our answers are in the creation story. So that’s how we plant.”
Imagery from the creation story has been utilized in promoting both horticultural traditions and the value of women’s bodies. Wakerakatsiteh (Louise McDonald), a Bear Clan mother at Akwesasne, has begun to host rites of passage ceremonies for the young men and women, called Ohero:kon. These ceremonies bring adolescents together as a cohort for fasting and participating in sweat lodge and other ceremonies, as well as for teachings from respected community members about coming into adulthood, learning necessary skills, and respecting their bodies. Wakerakatsiteh decided to develop a Mother Earth garden based on the creation story, so that the girls can understand the importance of planting at the same time they are coming into an understanding of their own fertility. Each spring, she has the boys create a mound of dirt in the shape of a woman, gently moving the dirt while discussing the importance of respecting women’s bodies. Just as the crops sprang forth from the body of Sky Woman’s daughter, the young women tuck seeds in around the figure. They plant tobacco at her head, because burning tobacco brings a good mind. A strawberry plant, whose crushed berries resemble blood, is planted at her heart. Corn, whose kernels turn milky as they ripen, is planted at her breasts. Squash, with a curly vine like an umbilical cord, grows from her belly button. String beans are planted at her hands, reflecting the fingerlike qualities of the long beans that come to dangle from the plants later in the season. At her feet, they plant potatoes, which grow to look like the bottoms of human feet that have been walking in fresh dirt.
When they finish, Wakerakatsiteh explains to the girls that they will have to come back to take care of this garden—seeds are like babies and need to be nurtured and cared for properly. At the same time, the girls are meant to identify with this fertile woman-garden—in Mohawk culture, understandings of the garden and the body are woven together—women and plants share certain qualities and sustain each other. Qualities of the human body are passed along to plants, which then nourish Mohawk bodies. The creation story is also used as a metaphor to explain other female biological processes. Bev Cook, the former director of the Saint Regis Mohawk Health Services clinic (and currently an elected chief), gives a presentation each year for the adolescents in which she describes the process of ovulation in the context of this story—the egg falls from the follicle, down the fallopian tube, and lands on the soft lining of the uterus, in a manner similar to Sky Woman’s journey. In light of the importance of women’s bodies in Mohawk culture, it is not surprising that it was a midwife concerned about breast milk who initiated interest in health studies after the discovery of environmental contamination.
Ohen:ton Karihwatehkwen, the Thanksgiving Address
Ceremonies and important events at Akwesasne, and in other Haudenosaunee communities, are opened with the Ohen:ton Karihwatehkwen—the “Words That Come before All Else,” or Thanksgiving Address—which addresses different aspects of the environment as family and expresses gratitude to and for them. This includes sections for the People, the Waters, the Fish, the Plants, the Food Plants, the Medicinal Herbs, the Animals, the Trees, the Birds, the Four Winds, the Grandfather Thunderers, Elder Brother the Sun, Grandmother Moon, the Stars, the Enlightened Teachers, and the Creator, each section concluding with “Now our minds are one,” addressing the importance of peace, balance, and consensus. In addition to elders, who have commonly been the ones asked to recite the Ohen:ton Karihwatehkwen at events, a number of younger people are now invited to offer the address, thanks to the Akwesasne Freedom School (a Mohawk-language immersion school), a language immersion program at the Akwesasne Mohawk Board of Education, and the promotion of the Mohawk language through Ohero:kon and other cultural programs. Segments of the address are featured in materials produced by the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe (such as the newest fish advisory issued by the Environment Division) as a way of highlighting the importance of, and the community’s relationship to, natural elements.
Kaianerekowa is cited as the source of traditional laws and principles that provide the political and spiritual structure of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. The Great Law also reaffirms sacred ceremonies, songs, dances, and the clan system. The telling of the entire story of the Great Law can take days, according to former Wolf Clan subchief Jake Swamp, whom I heard narrate what he called a “Reader’s Digest version” of the story that lasted an hour and a half, during which he was only able to scratch the surface.
The story generally begins in a time when the separate nations who would eventually come to form the Confederacy were at war. A man known as the Peacemaker was born on the shores of Lake Ontario to a Huron woman. When he grew older, he carved a canoe from stone, paddled it across Lake Ontario, and then traveled throughout territories of the warring nations, spreading a message of peace and strength in unity. He recruited Jigonsaseh, a female Seneca leader, to join in his cause and promote peace, initially by withholding food from passing warriors. For her cooperation, she was made the head clan mother, and the roles of other clan mothers were revived and strengthened. The Peacemaker also recruited Hiawatha (or Aiionwatha), a Mohawk man who created the condolence prayer after the death of his daughters, and who became the spokesman for the movement. Together, they worked to recruit each of the five Haudenosaunee nations to come together to form a confederacy that would bring peace among member nations and strengthen them to act as a unified body in peace and war with other nations. They demonstrated to the people how one arrow could be easily broken, but when brought together, a bundle of arrows was almost impossible to break. The last nation to agree was the Onondaga, led by an evil-minded chief named Tadodaho (or Adodaroh), who had a nest of snakes for hair. The Peacemaker (or, in some versions, Hiawatha) combed the snakes from Tadodaho’s hair and straightened his twisted and misshapen body, and thereby his mind. The Onondaga Nation was then offered the position of fire keepers. A great white pine tree was uprooted, and the weapons of war from all of the five nations were buried under it. An eagle was placed atop the tree to stand guard and sound a warning should anyone try to disturb the peace. The tree is said to have four white roots, which nations can follow back to the tree to achieve peace.
The Confederacy is symbolized as a great longhouse, with the Mohawk as the keepers of the eastern door, the Seneca the keepers of the western door, and the Oneida, Onondaga, and Cayuga in between. Within each nation, clan mothers, who are select older women of each clan, choose and depose chiefs. Each clan mother appoints a roiane (chief), as well as a subchief, a male faithkeeper, and a female faithkeeper, and these four people, along with the clan mother, work together under one hereditary title. For the Mohawk Nation, there are nine hereditary titles, three in each of the Turtle Clan, Wolf Clan, and Bear Clan. Decisions are made through consensus rather than through democratic vote. As an entire council, the chiefs of the Five (later Six) Nations meet at Onondaga, the most centrally located nation and the seat of the fire. Before any action can be taken by the Confederacy, all of the fifty chiefs who constitute the council have to agree, have to be of “one heart, one mind, one law.” When an issue is raised in the Confederacy council, it can be brought forward three times. After the third time, if it is not approved, it can never be raised again, in order to prevent divisiveness in the Confederacy.
The Kaianerekowa is not just an origin story for the Confederacy; it represents a complex combination of spiritual and political rules and regulations for spiritual ceremonies, political leadership, warfare against enemies, justice, international relations, funerals, adoptions and the resolution of internal disputes. Three concepts have come to be synonymous with the Great Law of Peace: skennen (peace), kasatstenhse:ra (power), and kanikonri:io or kariwiio (righteousness).
The Peacemaker brought skennen in order to end the bloodshed between nations. The white pine tree under which the weapons of the warring nations were buried has come to stand for peace. Skennen, as applied to the body politic, denotes peace and tranquility. As applied to the individual human mind/body, it denotes health or soundness, the normal functioning condition. Its antithesis is war, strife, and contention, or disease, illness, and obsession.
The Peacemaker demonstrated the second concept, kasatstenhse:ra, when he held up the bundle of arrows to show that unification means strength. Kasatstenhse:ra denotes the force of a strong community, its potential power in war, but also an individual’s power, the authority of the orenda, or, as Kanetohare terms it, the life energy force. A strong, healthy society has the power to enact peace.
The third concept, kanikonri:io (good mind) or kariwiio (good word, or good message), is not as easy to translate into English but has generally come to be called righteousness. This concept entails ethical teachings, values, justice, and righteousness as formulated in customs, later developed in institutional form through the teachings of Handsome Lake, a Seneca prophet who revitalized the longhouse religion at the beginning of the nineteenth century. On the level of the individual, kanikonri:io or kariwiio denotes the healthy mind of a person who follows and promotes these teachings and values.
Together, these concepts create the Great Law of Peace. Inherent in the notion that each concept has an individual denotation and a body politic denotation is the idea that for a society to be healthy, each of its individual members must be healthy, and vice versa. This sentiment was reflected in the conversations I had with Akwesasro:non that focused on the importance of community cooperation in improving health for Mohawk people. In addition, Mohawk scholar Taiaiake Alfred has used these concepts as the basis of his “Indigenous manifesto,” to inspire tradition-based leadership, and the Akwesasne Task Force on the Environment Research Advisory Committee (ATFE RAC) has used them as base principles in developing its Good Mind Research Protocol.
One Dish, One Spoon
Lessons around consensus and cooperation, and the importance of sharing food, are also built into the stories documenting the formation of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, in particular the “one dish, one spoon” philosophy. When the Peacemaker gathered a circle of fifty chiefs representing the member nations of the Confederacy together for the first time, he worked to establish what it would mean to work together. The Peacemaker passed around a bowl of beaver tail, a delicacy, of which the assembled leaders were expected to take only as much as they needed, so that there would be enough for all in the circle. This dish demonstrated the collective responsibility of the people to share equally, with a spoon rather than a knife offered to prevent possible bloodshed and disruption of peace. In a community that is often fractured along political and religious lines, the “one dish, one spoon” philosophy is frequently evoked as a reminder of the necessity of working together.
Akwesasro:non draw on cultural elements like the touchstones described above to frame understandings of health and the environment, and the ways in which community action to address issues should be carried out. In this book, these stories and philosophies are cited in the ways in which many Mohawks shaping environmental policy and environmental health research think and speak about health, women’s roles, food culture, and environmental governance.