Several days after the benefit event, I met Kanentiio again
amid a crush of people by the Plaza bandstand at the annual
Santa Fe Indian Market. We found a quiet place to sit and
answer my questions about the land, Kanentiio began telling
of where he was born and raised, Akwesasne Mohawk Territory
on the shores of Kaniatarowanenneh (St. Lawrence
River) at the New York-Ontario frontier. The Mohawks are
part of the Iroquois Confederacy, and the Keepers of the
Eastern Door. Their confederacy is the
active participatory democracy on Earth. With its
Great Law of
Peace, the Confederacy was a direct example and
inspiration for the U.S. Constitution.
former editor of Akwesasne Notes, Kanentiio is also
a founder of the Native American Journalists Association,
and the author of several books, including
Fire: A Voice from the Mohawk Nation. In
collaboration with his wife, Joanne, he is co-author of
Skywoman: Tales of the Iroquois.
many years Kanentiio served on the board of directors for
National Museum of the American Indian, and he is
currently serving on the board for the
Parliament of the World’s Religions, the largest
interfaith gathering on Earth. Steadily growing in scope and
influence, the Parliament will reconvene this December in
talked in Santa Fe, Kanentiio reminded me that Mohawk
Territory straddles the border between the USA and Canada.
It’s territory that’s in both nations, and it’s in neither.
“Akwesasne is a nexus,” he said. “It’s situated at a
juncture of land and water that is of considerable strategic
importance. We straddle the St. Lawrence River at what were
once known as the 25-mile rapids.” These rapids serve as a
key natural valve of flow in relationship between the Great
Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean.
“Historically at Akwesasne the lives of the people were
interwoven with the land and the water. People were called
there because the place had all the resources necessary for
life, and those resources gave stability to the people and
to the community. That provided the Mohawk people with a
high degree of cultural continuity, and it gave us a certain
power and purpose. We always had that.
in April of 1959 there came a break with this pattern. The
St. Lawrence Seaway came into being, and our whole way of
life changed. The natural, free flow of the living waters at
25-mile rapids was choked with locks. That energetic change
fractured our community. It messed up the fishing grounds,
and it separated the people from the water and from the
land. We began to metamorphose from a vigorous people to a
sedentary people. We became wage earners for the first time,
dependent on money, and we began to lose our language. That
brought about a huge change in values, and a whole
generation of our children began to change from that point
traditional indigenous peoples are separated from the land,
then there is a break in trust in relation to the land – a
break that goes both ways. We don’t trust the land, and the
land doesn’t trust us. But you must have that trust. When we
don’t communicate with each other, and when we don’t
communicate with the land, the relationships become
this context, Kanentiio mentioned Handsome Lake (Ganyahdiyok),
the legendary figure who brought Gaiwiio (Good
Words) to the people over 200 years ago. Among his life
experiences, Handsome Lake was given a vision of the future.
He foresaw environmental disasters including air and water
pollution, and he offered prophetic cautions.
“Handsome Lake and others warned us that the final assault
on the Iroquois – the greatest danger – would come from
within. That’s what’s happening now,” Kanentiio said. “In
terms of ideals, the Iroquois Confederacy represents
something very good. But things change. Metamorphosis has
continued and is continuing today, but at a faster pace. In
our tradition we have in our creation story an important
part about the twins, one twin of the good mind and one twin
of the bad mind. That’s something to remember. These twins
are always present.”
of tobacco and narcotics, and gambling — whatever commands a
profit — has created a narco-culture at Akwesasne,” he said.
“Our good, traditional Iroquois values of humility,
compassion, simplicity, generosity and communal service have
been replaced by greed, intimidation, violence, and death.”
hearing this, I told Kanentiio of a meeting that happened
about 17 years ago in Montreal. I found myself sitting
beside the widely known and respected Hopi messenger
Banyacya in a hotel lobby after he had given a talk. As
we conversed, Grandfather Banyacya told me that long ago,
when the Earth had gone through another epic metamorphosis,
gambling had been the precipitating factor. “That was the
last straw,” Banyacya told me. “When the gambling and all
its related problems built up to a certain level, that
triggered the great flood that cleansed the land.”
listening to my story, Kanentiio responded. “We Indian
people are supposed to be the custodians of the land, but
what we are doing now is running casinos. We are
sidetracked. We have lost sight of what we are supposed to
do. The bright, shiny thing along the path has enticed many
of the people to become lost, to lose track. Handsome Lake
warned of that a long time ago, and now it’s everywhere.
Earth is beginning to stir,” he said. “She’s beginning to
express the dreams and visions of long ago. The Earth is
showing us that she’s increasingly upset with us. The Earth
is beginning to arouse. There will be huge changes in this
time of reckoning, of healing, until the balance is
restored. We are very close now. It won’t be subtle. Big
winds will come. The Earth will shrug its shoulders.
are not able to change this movement toward purification,”
Kanentiio said, “but we know some things will survive. The
Confederacy will endure in spite of itself. That is a shared
understanding among traditionals, that despite all the odds
the Confederacy will survive and go on, as the larger world
will also go on in a new way.
“People feel the urgency of the changes now, and many are
motivated to do things. That’s good. Preserve what you can.
You have to leave something good and tangible behind.
particular thing that Kanentiio would like to help leave
behind is an Indigenous University for North America.
Vine Deloria, Jr. thought maybe we could take the system
of formal education, which had been used to undermine
traditional native societies, and reverse it’s impact by
creating our own institution based on the university
system,” Kanentiio said. “We would create a formal,
accredited university where native knowledge keepers would
have a place to teach.
have native colleges, but an Indigenous University could in
time meet and exceed universal standards for learning, and
provide formal instruction in all native arts and sciences,
of which there are many. It would have a high emphasis on
online study. That’s a dream of ours.”
Indigenous University would be open to everybody on the
planet, no restrictions of race or religion. ”That is
typical Iroquois,” Kanentiio explained. “Our way is to make
it possible that people come to a meeting of the good mind.
To get there, you need to sit in respect with one another.
You have to invite people from all walks of life and
viewpoints to share information, and you have to listen to
have the ideas to create an Indigenous University,” he said.
“What we need now are the physical and financial means to
bring it about.”
Shenandoah and Doug George-Kanentiio
related effort to weave indigenous viewpoints into the
world’s larger framework, Kanentiio and Joanne — as well as
other native peoples from North America and around the world
— have become involved with the
Parliament of World Religions. “We have in part managed
to get the Parliament to adopt a native perspective on the
Earth: to regard the Earth not as a commodity, but as a
Kanentiio serves on the board of directors for the
Parliament. He noted that the theme of their December,
meeting will be ‘Reconciling with Mother Earth.’ “My hope
for this Parliament,” he said, “is that teachers from
world’s various disciplines, Jews, Evangelical Christians,
Hindus, Muslims, Roman Catholics, and many more — can get
together again in Melbourne and finally acknowledge that
Earth is a living planet and should have standing. If
spiritual leaders accept that, and take these spiritual
understandings to their nations and congregations to make it
a guiding principle, then that’s a good thing.
feel the real revolution in human society will come about
through these spiritual changes,” Kanentiio said. “It has to
happen there first, on the spiritual level. Once we change
the spiritual, then the politics will follow.
me,” he said, “the roots of this understanding go back to
our Iroquois value that all human beings have equal worth,
if not necessarily equal abilities. Everyone’s life has
meaning. Some are singers and healers, and some are cooks or
builders, but each one of us has the blessings of existence.
To cultivate this, to acknowledge, to have gratitude for
being alive. You can always do that. Our lives are not
casual, not by chance. We have been directed here to this
time and place, and we are meant to take all of our life
experiences with us, all the joys, suffering, and pain, and
to take it with us with good mind when we return to the
place of living light. That makes the light stronger for the
generations to come.”
Note: Many of the themes articulated in this story
are also explored in my epic, nonfiction saga of a North
American journey through our era of transition,
the 8th Fire. – Steve McFadden