A rebirth for a sacred place on the Mohawk
By Doug George-Kanentiio
Originally published October 16, 2011
When Skennenrahawi, the Peacemaker, walked among the Iroquois more than 800
years ago, his plan was to create the world's first united nations entity
dedicated to the idea that human beings may live in a world without war.
To accomplish this, he created a set of rules called the Kaiienerekowa, or the
Great Law of Peace. This code not only provided the Iroquois with a
constitutional form of government but also directed them to reach out to other
nations to present them with an opportunity to join together in a league.
The resulting Haudenosaunee Confederacy would become the most influential
aboriginal organization in North America, affecting not only politics but also
economics, law, culture and history.
In the Peacemaker epic there are four sites identified with his work. The first
is his birthplace in the Bay of Quinte area, west of Kingston, Ontario. The
second is south of Rochester, at a location called Ganondagan, where he met
Jikonsaseh, the female leader who embraced his teachings and became the first
The third was the southern shore of Onondaga Lake. There the Peacemaker,
Jikonsaseh and the teacher Hiawatha confronted the sorcerer Tadodaho. They
persuaded him to abandon his evil ways and join them in raising the Tree of
Peace for all the world to see.
The fourth sacred place was astride the Cohoes Falls on the Mohawk River, just
before it flows into the Hudson. There, the Peacemaker was tested by the
They were intrigued by his message, but placed him on a tall tree above the
falls. The branch was cut beneath him, causing his fall into the fast flowing
waters. When he emerged unhurt and dry, the Mohawks knew he was indeed a
prophet. They became the first people to join what was to become the
The problem for the Iroquois has been the loss of these sacred sites to
land-hungry colonists in Canada and the United States. Only recently has there
been an effort to regain them, beginning with the creation of a spectacular
cultural center at Ganondagan, administered by Pete Jemison, a Seneca.
The land along the Cohoes Falls is now back in native hands, thanks to the
vision of the late Mohawk Nation Chief Jake Swamp and the hard work of Greg
Schaaf, director of the Center for Indigenous Arts and Culture in Santa Fe,
N.M., and John Kim Bell, the Kahnawake Mohawk who founded the National
Aboriginal Achievement Awards in Canada.
They established an excellent working relationship with the Brookfield Renewable
Power Company, a Canadian-based corporation, which had physical possession of
the property along the Cohoes Falls and was intrigued by the idea of returning
this sacred place to the native people.
Negotiations were begun with Chief Swamp's Tree of Peace Society. When he died
in October 2010, the society's board asked the newly formed Hiawatha Institute
for Indigenous Knowledge, of which I am vice president, to take over the
Led by its president Karihwakeron-Tim Thompson, a Wahta Mohawk, the institute
agreed. Les Lobaugh, a Navajo attorney and an institute member, used his skills
as an environmental specialist to review the legal contracts leading to the
Sept. 26, Dan Whyte of Brookfield met in Toronto with the Hiawatha Institute
delegates at a session organized by John Kim Bell. The land transfer contract
was signed and for the first time in 300 years, the Cohoes Falls property was in
The 110-acre parcel is on the north shore of the Mohawk River, on both sides of
the Cohoes Falls. It includes 1,200 feet of water frontage and extends north of
the river for about a half mile.
The Hiawatha Institute has yet to finalize its goals for the property, but it
will be made available to the Haudenosaunee for cultural purposes. There is the
possibility of a learning facility similar to Ganondagan, but no final
determinaton has been made.
Doug George-Kanentiio, an Akwesasne Mohawk, is the co-founder of the Native
American Journalists Association and the author of "Iroquois on Fire." He also
is vice president of the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge, He lives
in Oneida Castle with his beautifully talented wife,
His email address is Kanentiio@aol.com