Indian Time - A Voice from the Eastern Door

Tom Porter Speaks on Condolence


By Darren Bonaparte (Akwesasne)

As was expected, Mohawk elder Tom Sakokwenionkwas Porter packed the house at the Kawehno:ke Community Centre on December 19, 2017. His topic was Condolence - the ceremonies and customs related to death - but he managed to keep things on the lighter side.

The event was sponsored by the Tekanikonrahwa:kon Wholistic Health & Wellness Program of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne. Looking around the hall, it was apparent that folks had come far and wide to hear the talk. It was announced that people from Tyendinaga and Kanehsatake were present to listen to Tom. Della Adams, the organizer of the event, told the audience in her introduction that we were not "pen and paper" people, that we should concentrate more on what was being said than on writing it all down, but many were busy writing in notebooks when Tom began to speak, intent on capturing as many of his words as possible.

He began his talk as he often does, by reflecting on the days of his youth and the many great teachers he had. Men like Ira Benedict, a small but energetic man from Kawehno:ke who smoked Indian tobacco in a pipe and gave thanks to the Creator and the Thunders for bringing fresh water year after year. "He used to dance, he was so happy," Tom said. He also mentioned Paul "Kor" David, the main Faithkeeper who was the keeper of wampum at Akwesasne.

Next came his story about walking all the way to St. Regis Road from Beaver Meadow Road to learn the Ohenten Kariwatekwen-the Words Before All Else, also known as the Thanksgiving Address- from Alec Gray. "I had to walk all the way. If I hitchhiked, my grandmother would hear about it and get mad at me."

Tom brought tobacco with him to give to Mr. Gray, who was a member of the Bear clan like him. "I told him what I wanted to learn and he talked about geese! He talked about all kinds of animals, but not what I wanted to learn." When his visit came to an end, Tom walked home a bit dejected. He was sad that he did not get to learn the Thanksgiving Address, which was the reason for his visit. He eventually made another trip to see him and this time got the same deal. He learned about everything but what he wanted to know. Finally, after getting over his anger, he returned for a third time and this time had better luck. "I can explain it to you in about a minute," Alec told him. He then explained that you give thanks as though you were climbing a ladder. "You start by thanking the Creator, and the people who moved the ladder, and then you go up from the ground and into the sky, thanking everything along the way."

Tom came to realize that Mr. Gray was testing him to see if he was serious about learning, that he had the right attitude. This would be important when it came time to learn other aspects of the Longhouse way, such as the ceremonial rites that go along with the raising up of chiefs, otherwise known as Condolence. This is no little thing. It's serious business. It is what united the Confederacy.

Tom's understanding of our cultural history is that we were taught ceremonies and the natural way to live on this Earth by the Creator, Sonkwaiatison - He Who Made Our Bodies. Somewhere along the way, we lost those teachings and fell into chaos, so the Creator sent us the Fatherless Boy to teach us the Four Sacred Ceremonies. Well, we must have lost those teachings also because the Creator had to send us the Peacemaker to set us back on the right path. It is said that we got so bad that some of us became cannibals. The Peacemaker changed all of that and taught us the Kaienerakowa. Humans being human, we lost our way yet again when Europeans came to America and involved us in all of their wars. Eventually the Creator sent a Seneca prophet, Handsome Lake, to set us back on track yet again.

Tom spoke of the time of the Peacemaker, and the darkness of hatred and warfare that threatened to engulf the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca. He spoke of Aionwatha, the Onondaga chief whose daughters were killed by sorcery, and how his grief made him abandon his people and venture to the south. He eventually came upon a pond and startled the ducks and geese resting on the surface. They flew away, taking the water with them. He saw some shells shining in the mud left behind and began to gather them up in a pouch. He then strung together the first "condolence wampum" and invented the healing words that go with them, which he would say and do if he ever encountered someone in as much grief as he was in that day. This "wiping of the tears" ritual would eventually become the means to heal the tattered psyche of the people. It would become a ritual that would unite the warring Five Nations and bring them together into the "extended lodge" as one united family.

Tom then took a break from speaking and Mohawk Faithkeepers Richard Mitchell and Eddie Gray got up to continue. Richard spoke about the 15 condolence strings used in the ceremony to "raise up" a chief. He gave not only the Mohawk terms used but explained what they meant. Eddie helped display the strings on a wooden cane with engraved symbols. (This was not the same as the "condolence cane" that we are all familiar with that has the symbols of the chiefs engraved upon it along with pegs on each side.) A paper with the symbols printed on it had been handed out earlier in the day and these represented the actual strings and the messages they represented.

Tuscarora scholar JNB Hewitt published an account of the condolence strings which I have had occasion to study over the years. I was impressed by how close Richard's version was to what Hewitt recorded, even though about a century of time had passed since then. Since these are ceremonial teachings, it is probably best not to go into too much detail about them in this newspaper article, although there is probably nothing stopping you from going to the internet or the library and searching up that old Hewitt paper if you are so inclined.

When Tom resumed his part of the presentation, he talked about some of the customs that are associated with death and funerals for everyday people, whereas the condolence strings relate to the confederacy chiefs. Having experienced much of this firsthand here in Akwesasne, it is always good to hear the explanation of why certain things happen, such as the ten-day death feast. This is where a final meal is cooked with the dead person's favorite foods and a place for him or her is set at the table. At the end it is taken out and placed outside. The dead person's possessions are given away to everyone who helped with the funeral. This is a way of letting the person know that there is nothing keeping him here, that he or she can begin their final journey to the Creator's land.

Tom got very personal in his talk, telling everyone about the heart attack he suffered while visiting Onondaga years ago. This forced him to curtail his political activities and concentrate primarily on the cultural side of things. "I was given a second chance," he said. He expressed no fear of eventually passing on. He shared a dream he had in which he was taken to the Onondaga longhouse and shown an assembly of people wearing blankets and shawls. "Next to some of them were shawls and blankets laying on the ground. Those were the people of the confederacy who had passed on, people who had taught me. The guide who showed me all of this asked me what else I could see. I looked further and saw myself wearing a blanket."

This, of course, is just a sample of what was actually said during Sakokwenionkwas' presentation. I guess I'm not much of a pen and paper person myself, because my notes certainly do not come close to capturing all of what he imparted to everyone there.


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