Saying "Oh!": John Mohawk, 1944-2006
by Bruce Jackson
Sotisisowah, John Mohawk, a member of the Turtle Clan of the Seneca Nation of Indians, Seneca elder historian, died in his Buffalo home on December 10. He was 61. He was buried six days later in the Seneca Nation Cemetery on the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation, next to his wife, Yvonne Dion-Buffalo, a member of the Samson Cree Band, who died in June 2005.
Mohawk received his M.A. (1989) and Ph.D. (1994) from the American Studies Program at University at Buffalo and subsequently served as a member of the American Studies Faculty and as co-director of the University’s Center for the Americas. At the time of his death, he was director of the University’s Indigenous Studies Program.
He was a vigorous advocate of indigenous people’s rights and a prolific author and lecturer. He wrote scores of articles on the environment, racism, climate change, indigenous rights, colonization, the Iraq war, violence, globalization and foodways. He was a founding board member of the Seventh Generation Fund and the Indian Law Resource Center, a negotiator for the Mohawk Nation at the crisis at Racquette Point in 1981, an active member of the Seneca Nation’s Salamanca Lease Committee, and he helped to negotiate the settlement that became the 1988 Salamanca Settlement Act. He served on the Seneca Nation Planning Commission and its Investment Committee, was a member of the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy Grand Council and represented the nation in negotiations to end conflicts in Columbia and Iran.
He was editor of the news magazine Daybreak (1987-1995) and founder and editor of the journal Akwesasne Notes (1967-1983), both of which won journalistic awards. Some of the books he wrote or edited are Basic Call to Consciousness (1978), Exiled in the Land of the Free (co-edited with Oren Lyons, 1992), Utopian Legacies: A History of Conquest and Oppression in the Western World (2000) and Iroquois Creation Story: John Arthur Gibson and J.N.B. Hewitt’s Myth of the Earth Grasper (2005).
“Change the stories”
John Mohawk was “intensely steeped in the spiritual ceremonial traditions of the Haudenosaunee people through his foundational longhouse culture at the Cattaraugus Reservation in western New York,” wrote José Barreiro in Indian Country Today. “Mohawk was one of those rare American Indian individuals who comfortably stepped out into the Western academic and journalistic arenas. He was an enthusiastic participant in his own traditional ways, a legendary singer and knowledgeable elder of the most profound ceremonial cycles of the Haudenosaunee. As a scholar, he represented the Native traditional school of thought in a way that was as authentic as it was brilliantly modern and universal.”
His longtime friend and former student Lori Taylor wrote in an email a day after his death, “John Mohawk talked about himself as a person who bridged worlds. ‘We need people who can bridge those worlds,’ he told me, ‘and translate each to the other.’ This is precisely what drew me to study with him. I heard a tape of a lecture he gave—passed hand-to-hand with whispers that this is the real thing. Who was this guy who could explain the flow of world history, mediate violent battles, and still talk to his neighbors on the reservation about corn, beans, squash, and diabetes? I spent the next 15 years finding out at close range. At his 60th birthday party we were talking about what it was like to look back. I mentioned that I had seen his name that day in an encyclopedia article as an ideologue of the American Indian Movement. He talked about changes he had seen in radicalism. ‘What,’ I asked him, ‘is an aspiring radical to do today?’ ‘Change their stories,’ he told me.”
The power to make peace
One of his most frequently reprinted and quoted articles was “The Warriors Who Turned to Peace,” which first appeared in the winter 2005 issue of Yes! In it, he tells how the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, through the mediation of the Peacemaker, changed their story so they were able to stop killing one another. I wish George W. Bush and all the other warmakers of this world would read that article. Here’s the part I wish they would read again and again, until it began to make sense to them:
“According to the Great Law, peace is arrived at through the exercise of righteousness, reason, and power.
“You have the power to make peace with an enemy only if you acknowledge that the enemy is human. To acknowledge that they are rational beings who want to live and who want their children to live enhances your power by giving you the capacity to speak to them. If you think they are not human, you won’t have that capacity; you will have destroyed your own power to communicate with the very people you must communicate with if you are going to bring about peace.
“To bring this into contemporary thinking, if you say, ‘We don’t negotiate with terrorists,’ you have taken away your own power. You have to negotiate with them; they are the people who are trying to kill you! But to negotiate with them, you have to acknowledge that they’re human. Acknowledging that they are human means acknowledging that they have failings, but you don’t concentrate on the failings. You concentrate on their humanity. You have to address their humanity if you’re going to have any hope of stopping the blood feud. Thus, the first meeting, and subsequent meetings, begin with an acknowledgement that people on all sides have suffered loss and that their losses are traumatic ones.”
In that same article, Mohawk writes about righteousness in a way that reveals the hollowness of the sanctimonious politicians eating up all the airtime on Fox and CNN and NewsHour and White House press conferences:
“Righteousness is a very dangerous word in English and in European history. But here’s how it was used by the Haudenosaunee. Righteousness means that almost all of us agree that some things are right, correct, and positive. The list that we all agree on might not be long, but those are the things to build on.
“That takes us to the next element, which is reason. Reason means that you’re going to work on the rock-hard issues up to a point. You’re not going to settle them, but you’re going to move them as far forward on as many points as possible.
“The Haudenosaunee Law of Peace assumes that peace is not achievable as a static condition, just as relationships between human beings are not static but are always unfinished.
“What you can do is reach a place where you can work on resolving conflicts. You can find out why the two parties continue to have conflict and try to remove those irritants that have caused violence. You can reach enough of an agreement to take the conflict from warfare to a place where, as they used to say, thinking can replace violence, and where the conversation about peace is ongoing.”
“The Warriors Who Turned to Peace” is an article I think everybody should read. Here’s the url so you can read it: http://www.yesmagazine.org/article.asp?ID=1170.
John’s telephone calls always began the same way: The phone would ring, I’d pick it up and say hello, and John would say, “Would this be Bruce?” Not, “Hi, this is John,” or “Hi, Bruce,” but “Would this be Bruce?” At once subjunctive and nearly surprised. Yes, he’d dialed my number and I had answered, but surprises were always possible in this world. (His good friend Oren Lyons, Onondaga Faithkeeper and SUNY Distinguished Professor at UB, had been in Dubai when John died and he didn’t learn of John’s death until his return to the US, only a day before the funeral. “John was full of surprises,” he said after the burial.) The calls began not as if I were responding to his call but rather as the two of us were happily encountering one another.
After the subjunctive contact was established, we would talk about this or that, the foolishness of the world, an event, the war, this year’s corn harvest, whatever, and then, almost always, he would at some point say, “Oh!,” as if something had just come to mind. That would always introduce, I came in time to realize, not necessarily the thing he really called about—he really called about everything he talked about—but a thing that needed action or a decision or demanded a different kind of thought than what had preceded it.
I have some white friends who hold the real reason they’ve called until last, but what they’re trying to do is soften me up before they get to what they really want. What John was doing was nothing like that. It was instead getting us to the point where it was appropriate to talk about things like that, whatever they happened to be, because it was no more appropriate to jump to those things immediately than it is to have an opera without the overture, sex without the foreplay, a fine meal without conversation before it. You certainly can do those things, but why would you want to? John’s “Oh!” was about order, about place, about balance, which is to say, it was consistent with everything else he did.
John was passionately interested in food. He loved to eat and he loved finding ways to make eating more rational. He became, wrote Pat Donovan, “a proponent of the international ‘slow-foods’ movement, which promotes the reintroduction of slowly digested, often ancient, foods as a means of fighting heart and circulatory disease, tooth decay, obesity and especially diabetes, which is rampant in many native communities. To this end, he founded and directed the Iroquois White Corn Project (IWCP) and the Pinewoods Cafe, located on the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation in Irving. IWCP and the Pinewoods Cafe are projects that promote and sell Iroquois white corn products and foods to revitalize indigenous agriculture and to reintroduce the traditional Iroquois diet and to support contemporary indigenous farmers. Because of his involvement in this movement, he was invited in 2002 to present the keynote talk at the 34th annual commencement of the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center and School of Medicine.”
He recently visited Vietnam and Thailand and told everybody about his food experiences there, the most notable of which seemed to be that he’d finally found a cuisine some of which was entirely too hot for him. One of his friends said she got the idea that making him give up had become a challenge for his hosts and they’d liked him so much they did their very best. He was planning another trip back to eat there some more. I asked several people why he had gone to Vietnam and Thailand and they all said the same thing: “To eat.” But what, I asked, was the ostensible reason for the trip—an academic conference, research, the usual things academics use to get themselves to places they really want to visit anyway? “Maybe there was one,” one of them said, “but he never mentioned it. He said he loved Vietnamese and Thai food so he thought he should go eat it at the place they really knew how to do it best, that maybe he could learn something.”
A few years ago he called to say he was going away the following week to do some consulting for a tribe in the Canadian north. They lived, he told me, in the most out-of-the-way place he had ever been asked to go. I saw him a few weeks later and the first thing he said was, “I found a great restaurant.” “Terrific,” I said, “let’s you, me, Diane and Yvonne go.” “We can’t,” he said. “It’s in that village. The most out-of-the-way place I’ve ever been. Maybe they’ll ask me to visit again.”
When he invited me down to his mother’s house on the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation for the tenth day of his mother’s funeral, he said, “You should come. Somebody’s bringing bear stew. You’ve probably never had bear stew.” Late that day he filled a plate with the bear stew and lots of other things and he carefully carried the plate into the woods behind the house, where he left it for her.
“Some people say that…”
When awkward things came up—someone had accused someone of something, or a decision with no satisfactory choice had to be taken, or something in progress was likely to end badly—John would cross his arms over the top of his belly, let his eyes go up toward the ceiling, get a slight smile on his face, and then he’d cast the question or issue in the form of “Some people say that…”
And he would, thereby, place on the table a question or subject no one wanted to talk about but everyone knew had to be dealt with before we could move on. He put it out there in a way so nobody owned it and nobody, therefore, had to be defensive about it. It was just out there for anybody who wanted to talk about it to talk about it. Nobody was charged with anything so no one was prosecuting anyone for anything. You might feel guilty or responsible or prosecutorial, but that’s not what everybody else was up to; that was your personal problem with yourself.
With just that simple utterance and a benign smile and a look toward the sky, John could set the most difficult and awkward conversations in useful motion.
This world and that world
John Mohawk, as Lori Taylor said, lived in two worlds. At the time of his death, he was planning a very complex information retrieval project that would have utilized University at Buffalo’s supercomputer facility. He was also involved in that project of slow-cooking and white corn. In conversation he regularly talked of harmony and order, and when he talked of politics, which was often, he would point to the crime of despoiling the natural world. “We don’t own the Earth; we live on it.”
After the funeral ceremony in the Longhouse at the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation and the burial at the Seneca Nation Cemetery and the communal lunch in the Versailles community hall, Tom Porter, a Mohawk who had moved from Akwesasne to the Mohawk Valley, translated some of the words that had been spoken.
His story began with a man who, back in the time when people lived forever, fell down and didn’t get up. People picked him up but he fell back down. They used sticks to prop him up, but he fell down anyway. So they put him up on a scaffold and went about their business, figuring that he might wake up. A few days later they went to check on him and found only bare bones: the birds and animals had picked him clean.
Then the same thing happened to another man. And again the birds and animals picked his bones clean.
And then it happened to a little girl and that wasn’t the same because everyone loved her because she was a little girl and was happy. But, like the two men, she fell down and didn’t get up. They didn’t want to put her up on the scaffold for the birds and animals to pick at, so they went to a certain man in the village and asked him what to do.
This was a man who was full of questions. He asked why were there stars in the sky? Why did the sun rise? Why did the flowers grow? Why did the rain fall? He was, they thought, a wise man, and he might know why the two men and little girl fell and didn’t get up.
He didn’t. He said he wondered about that too. He said he would, that night, ask the Great Spirit what it was all about and he could tell them the next morning.
The next morning the man told them lots of things, and I can only summarize because Tom Porter told of many things the Great Spirit said that the man reported and I don’t remember them all. I was an outsider to this explanation and I know I can only approximate what he said.
For every one of us, he said, the day of our death is determined at the day of our birth, and nothing we can do will change it by a second. For every one of us, he said, there is a stick with marks on it, each mark indicating a day of our lives, and some of those sticks are long and some are short, and nothing we can do will make them longer or shorter. The Great Spirit, he said, hides those sticks behind his back because humans very often don’t tell the truth (how many small deer become ten-point bucks by the time the hunter gets back to the village? How many small fish become huge fish by the time the fisherman gets back to the village?). Death comes, he said, from Night, who has no eyes, no ears and no heart, so nothing you do or say will influence him. Nor is there any point in the living saying, “If only I had done this or done that.” Death operates on its own schedule, and it is important, he said, that both the living and the dead understand that. The living need to understand it so they can get on with living; the dead need to understand it so they can get on with whatever they’re going to have to do now.
And about the little girl who everyone loved: The Great Spirit said not to put her up on the scaffold, where the birds and animals would pick her bones clean, but instead to dig a hole in the ground and to wrap her in the garden blanket of earth.
And now John Mohawk, our friend and friend of the earth, is there as well, in the garden blanket of earth.
Bruce Jackson is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel P. Capen Professor of American Culture at UB.
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