Thursday, 10 May 2007

Traditional Iroquois spirituality

an interview by David Millar with principal Kevin Deer / Ka’nahsohon (Dipped Feather) of the Karonhianόnhnha immersion school at Kahnawake

"Our school is called Karonhianόnhnha (pronounced garonya NOHnyana) meaning 'She is the guardian of the sky', because a woman named Angeline Rice-Delormier donated the land; in her honour, the school was given her traditional name. It is dedicated to the survival of the language, culture and heritage of the Mohawk nation at Kahnawake, just across the river from Montreal. We provide a student-centred learning experience that focuses on meeting the needs of the whole child -- academic, personal, emotional, social, physical, cultural and spiritual. We have a student population of about 200. Parents have the choice to enrol their children in the Mohawk immersion or an English school. At Karonhianόnhnha, our students learn about our own creation story, history, stories, as well as songs, dances, basic ceremonies and speeches -- while also following the MEQ guidelines to develop competencies – so they can become well-balanced human beings with the knowledge to make sound decisions. After Grade 6 they can go to almost any high school of their choice.

We aim to surround our kids with a feeling of family, love and compassion to ensure their success. As principal my vision is to have no detentions, no poor behaviour, and kids taking their educational goals seriously. It is making a difference. In comparison to last year, student school infractions are down 70-75%. We have a lot of fun too. Personally, during our monthly student assemblies, I dress up in certain themes -- such as Halloween, a snowman, Santa Claus, a teddy bear -- to make clear that everybody can play together. We give them a sense of pride in their spiritual traditions (see below), in the creation story and its teachings of stewardship of the land, in ceremonies of respect and thanksgiving.

Our aim is to give them what they need to be whole, to be proud of themselves as a First People, as well as learn the knowledge and technology of other societies. A lot of our Grade 6 students are working on current environmental issues. As adults and teachers, we are concerned too. We’ve seen how pollution has affected the Saint Lawrence River, and is making our climate change. Where are we going? The spiritual knowledge of First Nations, our traditional teachings of this land, need to be fully understood by all Canadians and their political leaders. We believe the earth is our mother, not something to be dominated and eaten up. All things in creation have a spirit that we must respect. We must keep the balance. We should judge our success, not by how much money we have made, but by what we are leaving for future generations. Are they going to inherit a happy, healthy and safe home with birds, fish, and animals and everything needed to live in balance? How can we prepare our kids with the knowledge to come up with solutions to save the earth and ourselves?

One of my elementary teachers told us we were uncivilized, without religion. That the newcomers civilized us, ‘saved’ us and had all the answers. There was no pride in what our ancestors offered the newcomers. How could I, a little kid, argue the contrary? In high school we were taught that we (the natives) were only immigrants who crossed the Bering Strait, and then to create further confusion, that we evolved from monkeys. These distorted teachings destroy your pride in your ancestors, your traditions, and yourself. At one time we were united by the Great Law and ancient traditions. In the colonization process, and the wars between English and French empires, our nation became divided, those of the Mohawk Valley against this Catholic community. Here, schools were run by a religious order. We had to go to mass, kneel before the statues, do penance. Principals strapped you on the hand. Then other denominations came in, and religious conflicts in the community, between parents. Even the kids would insult each other. The Mohawk people were divided against ourselves. It was devastating for us to lose our own cultural grounding and family structures – matriarchal clans were replaced by a male-dominated European model -- our land, our way of life.

As a teen and young adult, I made some stupid decisions due to the pain and hurt that I experienced as a result of various losses – culture, language, spirituality, way of life, land. As a result, I was influenced by poor self-esteem, confusion, peer pressure. If I had the spiritual knowledge that I have now, I would not have imitated my colonizer, by seeking ‘manhood’ in alcohol, smoking cigarettes and other things that cloud the mind. I’d never have touched alochol or misused tobacco, but used it in ceremonies as a gift of the Creator. I would have been empowered as a spiritual warrior to defend and protect my body, as it is a reflection of the land.

Knowing what I know now, I’d not drink, I’d use tobacco in ceremonies as a gift of the Creator, I’d have the pure strong mind that the Creator gave me."

The Spirit of the Law of the Haudenosaunee (the Longhouse People)

Skén:nen (pronounced SKONnen) : Peace
Karihwí:io (pronounced gareeWEEyo) : the Good Way
Ka’shatsténhsera (pronounced GAshatSTONsera): Power

illustration: the Iroquois tree of peace from

These three principles underly the Great Law of Peace of the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy

Skén:nenGenerally translated as “peace” or “contentedness”. This peace not only means the absence of war or violence among the Haudenosaunee, but the mental health and well being of the individual. It is a state of mental contentedness and intense concentration. The health and wellbeing that is achieved by an individual utlimately results in the peace and contentedness of the collective. This principle produces an atmosphere that is free of war, violence, anger and hatred. Often used as a greeting.

Karihwí:io -- generally translated as the “good message” or the “good way”. This principle is commonly and erroneously translated as righteousness, though righteousness is in fact the result of following the good way. Another Mohawk word, “good mind” is sometimes substituted. Both words refer to the power of reason and inner goodness…ensuring liberty and justice…

Ka'shatsténhsera -- generally translated as "power" or "strength", the spiritual bond which is established among those who practise and share the previous two principles.

Courtesy of email him, or visit the Mohawk Cultural Centre for more explanation of the Great Law of Peace and traditional teachings.

Applying the Good Way

Communities must respect their youth, and not close their eyes to the future by denying the validity of their concerns. Communities cannot do what is right for the next generation without involving them and gaining their consent. If indigenous people are to have any future at all, every person counts. But those young people who self-destruct are not the only ones lost to the society. So are the apathetic…

Taiaiake Alfred, Peace, Power, Righteousness (Oxford University Press, 1999), p.130

Finding our strength

Confidence was not learned because of my formal education but in spite of it… this is one of the great failures of the current educational system. p.78
If we are going to educate our children and young people in meaningful ways, then we will begin involving the Elders in all levels of education. p.83
The bravest warriors are those who stand for peace... A warrior is someone who protects the land, protects the people. p.85

Patricia Monture-Angus. Thunder in My Soul : a Mohawk woman speaks (Fernwood, 1995.)

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