Monday, October 3, 2011
Listen, All of You
That’s how we always start a story. Tonight I want to tell you my story, my deep dark confession about being Kanien’kehakeh in 2011. About living here in Tkaronto, this place you call Toronto.
This word means, “There are trees standing in the water.” Our elders argue about what the actual translation is, but I like this particular version. The Haudenosaunee, or as you name us, the Iroquois, had moved south of Lake Ontario to consolidate our considerable power in the wake of the Beaver Wars. When we would return to Tkaronto in our war canoes, the giant elm trees that grew to the edge of the lake would mirror themselves in the water and you could see their reflection for miles out. This image manifests even now. When you cross the waters of Skanadariio, the Handsome Lake, you can see the towers of the city shimmering in the water.
People think this is Mississauga territory. The joke’s kind of on you. The Mississauga were here as our tenants. You paid them all that money for hanging out here while we were fighting the Americans for the British in their revolution. We could have beat them too, but for the British deciding to cut and run. And then what would the history of this country and this continent be?
This city is on Haudenosaunee land. The remains of our villages slumber beneath the streets of this city. To this day when a new subdivision is built or a street is dug up, shards of our pottery and our particular arrowheads keep surfacing. It is a reminder that this place is where we used to walk, where we sang and held our ceremonies and dreamed our waking reality into life, in the process called Ondinnonk. When this city dreams, it dreams in Mohawk. Even when it names itself – Toronto, Ontario, Canada – all of these are Mohawk words. You speak Mohawk whenever you name this place as your home. You speak it and you don’t even know that you do.
Sewatahon’satat . Listen, all of you.
I want to tell you my story. I moved here to Toronto in 1981 when I was 17 years old, almost 18, to go to York University. When I first started there at the school I spent nearly three months pretending I wasn’t even an indigenous girl, trying to erase my own identity. I pretended to be just a normal white girl from somewhere south of Hamilton. I got away with it, too. It’s not that I was embarrassed by who I am, I just didn’t want to have to explain over and over again, to tell the history that I know that is so woefully untold by your education system and left out of your colonial history. I didn’t want to face the questions. I was fearful of being perceived as different. I knew instinctively that I could reinvent myself, and I didn’t want anyone trying to define me. I needed to define myself first.
One of the many things that people don’t know about the Iroquois is this; our people have long been a cultural melting pot. We are not merely a nation of people bound by blood – we are a political, cultural and spiritual entity. There are six Nations in the Iroquois Confederacy – the Mohawk, the Oneida, the Onondaga, the Cayuga, the Seneca, and the Tuscarora. Over time we had absorbed other tribes that had populated this area, people like the Petun, the Erie, the Tobacco, the Susquehennock, the Wendat, the Abenaki.
You called us “the Romans of the New World”, but we call ourselves the Children of Sky Woman, the original inhabitants of Turtle Island. The Mother of us all fell from the Sky and landed on a Turtle’s back and give birth to us and every living thing here. We buried our hatchets at the roots of the Great Tree of Peace and promised to join a confederacy that gave us a constitution, the Gayanashagowah, the Great Law. This is not just a story. This is fact.We were bound together by the powerful and spiritual voice of the Peacemaker, and his faithful friend and companion, Hiawatha. The story of how this came to be is beautiful and powerful, and so amazing. It is the story of how a people overcame the deep terrible sadness of the grief and pain of the Mourning Wars. For generations we had fought each other in bitter, unending war, killing women and children in an endless cycle of vengeance. The Peacemaker gave us the Condolence Rite which stopped our tears and cleared our grief, and with this, we became whole again.
And none of you know it.
The founding fathers of the League of the Iroquois lived by three principles: first, the peace within individuals and between groups that comes from a healthy body and a sane mind; secondly, justice that comes from correct actions, thought, and speech. And lastly, the spiritual power that comes from physical strength and civil authority (meaning the power of the chiefs to make the decisions and the authority of the women who appoint the chiefs). Peace. Power. And Righteousness. These were the overriding principles that governed our nations and our Confederacy.
My people have always been interested in power. We even have a word for it – orenda, or the “soul of all things” – which I am given to understand is kind of a bad translation, as this is one of those purely Haudenosaunee concepts that really doesn’t have an equivalent in English. It is the philosophy that every human being is invested with his or her own power, a life-force that is equal parts aura, destiny, force of will, strength of character, and personal charisma. Men and women equally are expected to develop their personal orenda, to follow its pathways and exercise their abilities in the pursuit of peace, power, and righteousness – and ultimately for the benefit of the entire nation. There is also the expectation that a healthy orenda leads to balance and equanimity among the people.
We Iroquois replaced our numbers with adoption and the voluntary membership of several other nations. There is a clause of the Gayanashagowah that states, “If anyone comes to sit beneath the House of the Long Leaves and swear his or her fealty to the Great Law shall be admitted.” If you were to run DNA tests on us we would be an amalgamation of many different bloodlines. Because of this, we Iroquois incorporate so many different people into our cultural and political entity we look like any number of those who were our ancestors. Some of us even look white.And though I can count an unbroken line of Mohawk women back to the pre-Contact shadows of the Mohawk Valley, our ancestral homeland, I don’t look like what you think an indigenous person should look like.
Thus can I get away with denying what I am.
While I was at university, I nominally studied English and political science. How is that for embracing a colonized course of study? But while I was there I had my own personal rock and roll rebellion. I embraced punk rock, with its emphasis on individuality in a community, in the us against them, in the wild thrashing guitars and the smokey clubs at night. I hung out in Kensington Market. I danced in clubs along Queen Street West. I ate Cambodian and Thai and Mexican food in the Annex. I rode my bike through the city and pretended to be invisible, just another girl on the verge of being a woman, clinging to an extended adolescence and walking the bleeding edge of alternative cool. My identity was hidden. I was only “out” as an Iroquois, as a Mohawk, to my closest confidantes. I was too cool for all those questions of identity.
Sewatahon’satat . Listen, all of you.
But this denial, this turning away, was not sustainable for me. In due course I became a mother and then a wife. I had two beautiful children and this awoke in me my sense of myself as an indigenous woman, of this place, and this time. In them I ingrained my heritage and my culture. How could I not? This line cannot be broken. I am a Kanien’kehakeh, born of a long line of Mohawk women, all of us imbuing our children with the sense of who we are. It had to come out.We are not a passive people. We are warriors, men and women alike. We resist. We made treaties and agreements with the colonizers, agreements that predate this nation that calls itself Canada. We demand that our agreements be respected. We demand that our place on Turtle Island be left to us, for us to administer in our own way and as faithful to our traditions as we can be. We demand to be the People Building a Longhouse together, to be Haudenosaunee.
These days when I meet people I am very forward about who and what I am. I refuse to minimize myself any longer, to deny what I am. I was doing what the colonizer wanted, to make me ashamed of my bloodline, of my heritage, of my culture.I will not do this any longer. I will decolonize myself. I will rip out by the roots those ideas that are not mine, those ideas put there by a culture that wants to erase mine, to erase our memory and our claim as the true Keepers of the Land. Your culture would crush mine. We resist. Your culture would erase our memory from the very stones of this place. These stones remember and lift up our artifacts to remind you. Your culture tells itself that it has the right to place limits on our numbers, on how we govern ourselves, tries to tell us we are as Canadian as you are are. We know that is not true. We are the Haudenosaunee, the onkwehonwe, the real people. We are the People Building a Longhouse Together and our memory of this place, of this city that you call Toronto is older and longer and still remains ours.
There are only eighty thousand of us in the entire world. But the thing to remember is this; fifty percent of our current population is under the age of 25, and our numbers are resurging. And all of us, every single one of us, know more about you than you do about us. Every one of our territories lives in resistance and demands our rights under those agreements that we made in good faith with your colonial ancestors and with you.
Sewatahon’satat. Listen, all of you.
This electric city, so infused with its global yearnings of cosmopolitan splendour, its busyness, its competitiveness, its sky-high real estate prices, its glass towers, its modern rhythms and its ancient bones, this place sings. And the song it sings to itself beneath the humming of the subway and the honking of the cars isn’t a English folksong, or a French courier song, or an Italian or Greek or Chinese song, or the songs of all the people who have made this place its home…The song this city sings is a Haudenosaunee one. This song is remembered in the very granite that binds this city to the back of Anowara, the Turtle. It’s sung to the beat of a water drum and a deer horn rattle. It is the song that my people dance in pow-wows to.
I will sing it for you now. It’s called the Smoke Dance.
Sewatahon’satat. Listen, all of you.
Smoke Dance Links: