March 14, 2013

Hemispheric Journal: Boriken Trails

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Prize-winning potter Alice Chéverez creates ceramics inspired by much older Taíno vessels. Her mother reconstructed Taíno pottery-making techniques in consultation with archaeologists working in the caves near her family's house. Morovis, Puerto Rico, 2013. Photo by Roger Hernandez.  

“The clay calls me,” said Alice Chéverez, a Boriken Indian woman of the Barahona Valley, in the mountains of Morovis, Puerto Rico. “El barro me llama.” 

Alice was just finishing a clay pot she had fashioned during forty minutes of conversation. We were taping with Alice on the Taíno pot-making techniques her mother, along with a Puerto Rican artist, reconstructed in the early 1970s. Alice allowed that it was not easy to get good at the craft. As a young girl, she watched her mother’s pottery-making, learned the full craft, and has never left it. Alice—of classic Taíno physique and facial features—smiles sweetly. “I have walked away from it twice,” she elaborated as a rooster pecked at the ground underfoot. “But always after a few days, I want to feel the clay between my fingers.”

We had driven more than three hours out of Mayagüez to visit her family. Puerto Rico around San Juan is heavily urbanized, but go east or west out of the capital, up the mountains to the central and even some coastal regions, and you can still meet families of distinguishable indigenous legacy and lineage. The Chéverez are a large, extended Indo-Boriken family still living in these precious mountains. Their place has the feel of the old campesino (jibaro) homestead—hanging hammock, animals walking loose, barefoot children playing. Alice’s parents and earlier generations held rich—not ancient, but natural growth—forest. A portion that the family guards to the present day has been designated as the Cabachuelas Natural Reserve.

Alice let us know that her mother, before she passed away, was the heart and center of a very large group of people. “Around here, she was mother chicken. When she worked her pottery, everyone worked on something around her. If she got up to go into the field, everybody followed—the little kids, even the men. Everybody wanted to be with her.”

Alice’s mother, Doña Varin, was the matriarch of the large extended family for several decades. Of the Chéverez, Alice said: “We are not that many, but we are not a few either.”

The family is reminiscent of large multifamily, Indo-Cuban homestead caserios found in the Cuban mountains. More than a single nuclear family at the end of a long and winding road of verdant hills, the Chéverez are a multifamily lineage. Mapping with Alice her family’s extensions, we could count ten families with several children each just among her siblings, while the extended genealogies of a large chain of uncles and aunts and their children’s families through three living generations took our quick kinship count to some two hundred people. “And there are others,” Alice shook her fingers. I encouraged Alice and the family to develop a count of their relations. 

That day, our last full one on the island, we would walk a long way up the hills behind their homestead, to enter huge caves that featured pictographs and petroglyphs drawn and sculpted by Taíno ancestors. 

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Top: Juan Manuel Delgado, guide Felix Chéverez, and Jose Barreiro at the Cabachuelas Natural Reserve. In the mountains near Morovis, Puerto Rico, 2013. Photo by Ranald Woodaman.
Above l
eft: Entrance to one of several large caves at Cabachuelas. Right: Faces in the stone—Taíno cave pictography. Photos by Roger Hernandez.

I was in Puerto Rico with Ranald Woodaman, director of exhibitions and public programs of the Smithsonian Latino Center. Our visit to the Chéverez family and their mountaintop grounds came at the end of a week of much motoring to public encounters and think-tank discussions at universities; visits with the Taíno movement community folks; and visits to numerous scholars, museum exhibitions and collections, and ceremonial plazas. 

Boriken is often used, particularly among Boricuas, as the more autochthonous name for Puerto Rico—the name of local origin. Boriken is the Taíno term heard by Spaniards at conquest. It describes this island’s branch of what is known in archaeology and in the contemporary legacy movement as the Taíno people of the Antilles.

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That art looks so interesting! It's cool to see the real thing, rather than a re-vamped modern imitation. Both are great, but there's always something better about an original.

February 01, 2013

Hemispheric Journal: San Juan de la Maguana, Taíno Capital of Quisqueya (the Dominican Republic)

There are places that hold layered memory, places recognized long ago to hold spiritual density. Our common ancestors knew such places, gathered and “opened” communication—connection—with the alignments, the patterns of wind and water, the visual signals of seasons and moments. There is always revelation in this, if difficult to describe.

San Juan de la Maguana, in the Dominican Republic (DR), is one of those places where density of space blends with continued human attachment to the indigenous memory. I was there with Ranald Woodaman, from the Smithsonian Latino Center, on behalf of NMAI's Caribbean Indigenous Legacies research project. We traveled to various places in the DR to open up a discussion of our anticipated exhibition Consciousness of Taíno: Caribbean Indigeneity.  

The Indigenous Legacies project, with collaboration from the National Museum of Natural History and many others, seeks to understand and appreciate the variety of Caribbean indigeneity found today in a broad range of topics. 

In Santo Domingo, at the Museo del Hombre Dominicano, we met with established figures of Dominican scholarship, including Manuel García Arévalo, Frank Maya Pons, and Bernardo Vega, as well as members of the group Guabancex, a Taíno epistemic, or shared-knowledge, community. Scholars and various participants commented on the ideas and themes of the proposed exhibition and related productions. In Santo Domingo, we also visited museum collections, stopped by to chat with Minister of Culture Jose Antonio Rodriguez, and teamed up with Eduardo Diaz, director of the Smithsonian Latino Center, to host a dinner for the American ambassador, the Honorable Raul Yzaguirre. Later in the week, we would travel to La Romana and Altos de Chavon to visit an accomplished Taíno-based curriculum-development project. 

Indigenous Forum
Caribbean Indigenous Legacies forum, hosted by the Museo del Hombre Dominicano. Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, 2013.

In a country of presumed extinction of indigenous identity and culture, San Juan de la Maguana—in the island's old cacicazgo of the Taíno queen Anacaona—stands out for its concentration of people who profess and relish the indigenous heritage of Quisqueya and the Caribbean, broadly identified as Taíno. 

Museum visit
Director Cristian Martinez (center) giving Jose Barreiro (foreground) and Victor Siladi a tour of the exhibits at the Museo del Hobre Dominicano. Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, 2013.

At each of more than 20 kilometers on the highway nearing San Juan markers depict a sculpted Taíno cemi. Entering town, the Plaza of Caonabo, with its statue of the tough early cacique breaking his chains, signals the mentality later expressed by local leaders. Caonabo was Anacaona’s husband and the chief who wiped out the first Spanish garrison left by Columbus in the Americas.

At the forum in the Municipal Center, in her formal greetings, Mayor Hanoi Sánchez made it clear that her constituents in San Juan de la Maguana take seriously their indigenous heritage. The mayor has been a leading power behind the strong identification of civic institutions with indigenous Taíno legacy. She asserted with much pride that San Juan de la Maguana is the “capital of aboriginal culture” in the country.

The Native-identification of the mayor and testimonies by a number of other speakers gave intellectual and cultural bent to a conversation that invited local and national researchers in these themes to share their work and to lead us to all possible approaches to the subject.

As always, some express a belief in the total extinction of their indigenous roots while many point out pieces of indigeneity in the puzzle of identity and culture of the area. As always, too, in these types of meetings in the Greater Antilles, people of apparent Indo-Caribbean ancestry approach, wanting to explore more of their indigenous culture and legacy. One middle-aged woman asked for orientation in conducting oral interviews with her aging mother, “who knows many of our Indian things.” Others spoke of Indian roots that undergird Afro-Dominican socio-spiritual movements, music, religious practice, memory in place.

Piedra Sanadora
Carmen de La Rosa, guardian of the Healing Stone, active in ritual practice. Maguana Arriba, San Juan de la Maguana, Dominican Republic. Photo by Pedro Amoros.

A local group including Dr. Sobieski de Leon guided us to the Plaza of Anacaona, known locally as the Corral de Indios. This is a sacred space in the old cacicazgo, a large circular ceremonial field, with a stone—the Stone of Anacaona—at the center. It was fascinating to me that the stone is identified as having been in place for more than five hundred years since the massacres that were committed at this exact site. A local prayer woman (oradora), blending Catholic saints and "world alive" practice, normally cares ceremonially for the stone. However, she was not there for the day.

Respecting the Stone of Anacaona. San Juan de la Maguana, Dominican Republic, 2013.

On behalf of the group, Dr. Sobieski wondered if we would conduct a greeting ceremony for the Anacaona Stone, and I acceded. We cleaned up, burned sage, and announced our greetings to the sacred space of Anacaona's old areito ceremony, located notably near the exact center of the island. The place and the elements of wind and sun were with us, strong imaging in the clouds, undeniably a sacred landscape to be acknowledged and appreciated.

Not far up the mountain, where roads turned to dirt and stone, we later arrived at the altars of the region's Liborio tradition. This, too, is a context of sacred landscape, a sacred water place still guarded by young men of descendant families. 

Liborio is a legendary figure—clairvoyant, curandero, natural mystic leader of the early 20th century. Christ-like for some, source of inspiration and spiritual strength for many, Liborio left a legacy in the history and memory of his intense and extensive movement. Liborio's blessing of the water at this site is remembered in the ritual and bathing in the mountain’s sacred water, observance that strongly persists.

Here, too, we offered our respects to the cave altar, the “path of crosses,” and the sacred water. In conversations with the young people guarding the site and with ethno-documentalist Ariel Mota and scholars Fatima Portorreal and Glenis Tavares, all gave testimony of many family ceremonies to water still performed in the area. 

As we visit sites and peoples in our approaches to indigeneity, often there is call for ceremonial formality. We opt to respect local tradition and share in "world alive" ceremony, purely traditional or blended with other beliefs that reflect a basis of respect. 

Just these brief visits around San Juan de la Maguana and elsewhere in Dominican Republic offered evidence of rich orality and currents of identity and belief of considerable indigeneity. The challenge of our research and exhibition project is how to continue to gather and interpret this layered reality, how to decipher, correspond, compare across islands and localities the evidence of indigeneity in the Caribbean world. 

—Jose Barreiro

Jose Barreiro (Taíno) is head of the Office of Latin America within the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. 

To read more about the Indigenous Legacies project, please see a related short essay by Smithsonian Latino Center Director Eduardo Diaz.

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October 15, 2012

Haudenosaunee Journal: Kogi at the Mohawk Women’s Gathering

2. IMG_0891 (1)Akwesasne women's gathering:  Lakota elder Loretta Afraid of Bear introduces the Kogi delegation from Colombia to the assembly. (Photo by Jose Barreiro)

In the Akwesasne Territory,near Hogansburg, New York, six Kanienkehaka (Mohawk) women leaders of Konon:kwe Council, an intergenerational task force working to reconstruct and reclaim their powerful matrilineal roots, hosted a strong gathering of Native community women involved in issues of domestic and sexual violence. They welcomed groups of Haudenosaunee women from throughout the Six Nations and also from Lakota, Hopi, Dine, Pima, Crow, Cheyenne, Gwitch’in, Anishinabe, Kogi, and other nations.

The four-day spiritual gathering, “Weaving Webs of Women’s Wisdom,” invoked a common voice ceremonially and presented numerous substantial workshops on issues of indigenous women’s knowledge and dignity. Health service directors and nurse practitioners, midwives and clan mothers, victim advocates, first responders, and police officers joined a range of presenters with strong focus on the incidence of abuse of Native women. Men everywhere need to hear the kind of testimony and response shared here by Native women on this horrible strain of woman/child-hating that is all too prevalent on the American scene. In many neighborhoods and districts across Indian Country, women identify this shameful scourge that sees a range of young and older abusers severely abusing women and children.

The majority of assault against Native women involves non-Native men. The crime of rape of girls and boys and the torture of women in terrifying assault appear increasingly commonplace. Among certain sub-groups within community cultures, this cowardly practice by the lowest denominator of men has become acceptable. The women here are saying, “Kakweni!” “Enough!” This gathering, put together by Konon:kwe Council, and led by Bear Clan Mother Tewakierahkwa Louise McDonald, represents a vortex of movement toward a major dialogue—culture-based, action-based, and experience-based—that is long overdue. Major foundations and women in philanthropy have a duty to pay attention to these kinds of community-led, highly informed movements.

1. IMAG1842Mohawks give braids of corn to Lakota delegation (Photo by Jose Barreiro)

There is a war on women and children. It must be confronted. The cycle of violence must be broken. Among the nearly three hundred guests received by the  Konon:kwe Council was a delegation of four Kogi from Colombia—two elder Kogi women and also two knowledgeable Kogi men. Konon:kwe asked me to stop by and greet them, and to assist them in imparting their cultural message. For over twenty years this long-isolated people of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in northern Colombia has made ocassional forays to the outside world. The Kogi hold a tradition of deep Native culture, indigenous to their sacred mountains. They demonstrate a sensibility to place that provides a framework for reading the health of la Madre, Mother Earth.

The visit by the Kogi representative is testimony to the constant delegations of Native community people traveling to distant lands. A group of northern Native women, including a Lakota elder, visited the Kogi in June and invited them to come out into the world once again, to present their message on the suffering that they detect is afflicting Mother Earth. The Lakota delegate thought it completely relevant to a gathering on violence against women; the Mohawk women agreed. The northern Native activists, with a pressing and intense agenda of presentations, heartily accommodated the painstaking, time-slowing pattern of the deeply traditional Kogi elders.

The Kogi carry a formal message and put through investigatory ceremonies wherever they travel. Here at the shore of the St. Regis River, within the site of the Women’s Gathering, they presented their message. The Kogi report that in their world the connective elements of many related patterns in nature are dissolving, losing strength without “payment” to Mother Earth, whose ability to respond is decreasing at alarming rates. For an Indian gathering, this message is not new.  Even in the northern reservations, often overwhelmed by industrial life, the memory of eco-systemic knowledge, in practice and language, is relatively fresh. The prophetic tradition among several important historical tribes points to a degradation of nature that would cause great strife and suffering.

Indian Country has put up a consistent ecological defense movement and sustains traditional farming and use of plant medicines in the face of ridicule and even persecution. What is always new and refreshing is to hear the integrity of the message presented once again by indigenous people who are traditionally and empirically closest to a natural world reality. After a heat season of major proportion, with some 70 percent of US counties in serious to severe drought conditions, the message of a natural world gone awry is increasingly graspable.

3. IMAG1846Akwesasne women's gathering: Kogi and Mohawk sisters share a dance for "la Madre Tierra." (Photo by Jose Barreiro)

At one point the Kogi elder woman put down a small gourd in the middle of the circle. It was a ceremony that would culminate with a dance. She asked that everyone there put into the gourd, exactingly and without spillage, all the money they thought they should pay the Moon and the Sun, the Air and the “earthquake inside Mother Earth” for what they had given us already in this life. “How much is it worth?” This wasn’t about asking for real money; it was about a spiritual idea of money. “If you could pay these four major helpers from nature, how much would you give them. Put it all in that little gourd.” One by one, the large group of women and a few men fed the gourd their appreciation for nature’s gift in imagined money.

This spiritual payment the Kogi would package and take back to their mountain for their medicine people to burn in a large spiritual fire. It was a sincere moment of pause and consideration to Mother Earth, her gifts and her message.

Mother Earth and some of her Daughters had their say at the Konon:kwe Council gathering. Would that more women and more men could hear their powerful words.

Jose Barreiro (Taíno) is head of the National Museum of the American Indian’s Office for Latin America. His Hemispheric Journal also appears on the Indian Country Today Media Network.

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Great article, thanks

Nice article.

July 17, 2012

Sundance 2012: Four Days for Tunkashila

IMG_0220_MV (1)
After the Sundance: Looking east at the Tree of Life. Photo by Marisol Villanueva, courtesy of the Grandmothers Wisdom project. 

Author's note: The images shown here, by photographer Marisol Villanueva, portray elders and dancers after the formal closing of a four-day Sundance ceremony hosted in the Black Hills. They document a public ceremony that honored an ally of the Lakota families who sponsor the American Horse–Afraid of Bear Sundance. The photographs were taken and released under the families' direction, with the intention of informing "the people-at-large" of the new name given to a respected friend. 

Once again before Grandfather Sun, Tunkashila, the ceremony has come together. As they have for sixteen years, on these wondrous plateaus of the southern Black Hills of the northern Great Plains, Uncle Joe American Horse, traditional chief and former tribal president; his brother David American Horse; Grandma Beatrice Long Visitor Weasel Bear; respected headwoman Loretta Afraid of Bear; respected Pipe Carrier Tom Cook; and the American Horse/Afraid of Bear tiospayes (families) receive brothers and sisters of the many directions.

The purpose is to pray—by dancing, by receiving each other in a good way. In a properly isolated place, where wild horse herds roam relatively free, a ceremonial arbor open to the Four Directions is flanked by a large shade on poles and a dozen large tipis. This is home for four and more days to dancers there to don the ceremonial skirt, red-tied bracelets of prairie sage on ankles and wrists, crown of sage tied in red cloth, dual eagle feathers (spikes are favored) placed on the head; set to carry the ceremony as dancers of the sun.  Below—“downstairs”—a second plateau a half-mile away is camp for some two hundred family supporters of specific and groups of dancers, where more tipis and tents, an occasional RV, and many trucks and cars circle around a communal kitchen, staffed completely by volunteers— cooks and helpers.

There are many Sundances each summer, perhaps fifty or more just at the Oglala–Lakota reservation of Pine Ridge, hundreds, maybe thousands, across the Northern and Southern Plains, many more during sun-appreciation ceremonies throughout the hemispheric Native Americas. While foundational precepts and structures are manifested wherever Native peoples salute or celebrate the sun, each Sundance has its history, its specificity of culture and practice over its own ceremonial trajectory.

The Sundance sponsored by the American Horse and Afraid of Bear tiospayes, with much support by Red Clouds and other Lakota families, is unique in this general manner: About twenty years ago, grandfathers and grandmothers of the previous generation, guided by Larue Afraid of Bear and Ernest Afraid of Bear, journeyed over four years throughout the Black Hills.  Through sweat lodges and long walks, they searched for a proper place to bring the Sundance of their tiospaye from nearby Pine Ridge Reservation, home of the Oglala Sioux Nation, to their ancient grounds in the Black Hills. They found it inside an 11,000-acre sanctuary for wild horses established years ago by a cowboy-writer named Dayton Hyde. The story of how the old Indians found a meaningful partnership with the old cowboy who had saved a herd of mustangs, how they shared “signals” from a cave of ancient pictographs, put up inipi (sweatlodge) ceremonies, and finally “were led to” the sacred grounds of the present Sundance is worth much longer telling. It is an origin story and legend vivid with magical elements and assertive values—mysterious, yet true and historical. That narrative informs this particular Sundance, weaving into a common thread, which, for the sixteen years since 1997, has united a widespread range of participants.

The word tiospaye describes the very large, extended family of Plains Indian culture. The American Horse family numbers into the hundreds and originates in the line of the great 19th-century chief American Horse—a contemporary of Crazy Horse, and, along with that renowed warrior, one of four “shirtwearer” chiefs of the Oglala people. Afraid of Bear was a chief as well, from a family of strong political tradition, and progenitor also of hundreds of descendants. Other Oglala families participate in this summer solstice ceremony, notably the Red Cloud people, intermarried and relatives through tiospaye alliances since before reservation days.

Chief Joe American Horse and Loretta Afraid of Bear honor ally Dayton Hyde with a naming ceremony. Wearing a blue dress in the background is Beatrice Long Visitor Afraid of Bear. Photo by Marisol Villanueva, courtesy of the Grandmothers Wisdom project.

These are strong Oglala families, leadership people in a tribe with a long and difficult history. Deeply rooted at Pine Ridge, the American Horse–Afraid of Bear Sundance gathers spiritualists and cultural practitioners, activist families and individuals of many tribes and peoples. Through the leadership of Tom Cook and Loretta Afraid of Bear, Chief Joe American Horse, and important allies such as Milo Yellow Hair, the tiospayes work a summer gardens project that receives volunteers and consultants from many parts. Friendships and alliances extend internationally from just this one piece of the Oglala universe. This reality led the elders, after much discussion, to allow the tiospayes to accept people of other races to participate. “There’s four colors of man—red, white, black, and yellow,” Ernest Afraid of Bear once put it. “Anyone who wishes to come pray with us can come pray.” This became a definitive decision at the founding of their Sundance by Oglala elders. The decision does not lack for controversy, but the head people have only deepened their conviction over the years that while their ceremony must remain rooted in the Oglala families and Native leadership, kolas (good friends) of all races should be welcomed to participate.

On “tree day,” the evening before the start of dancing, a line of fifty cars snakes from the grounds to a creek where a silk cottonwood tree with just the right qualities has been selected.  Struck first by four young girls, the tree is sacrificed—greeted, smoked over, painted and sung over, then cut down by the men dancers, who are charged not to let it hit the ground. Thus it is carried and motored to the Sundance circle, where it is prepared, decorated with many tobacco-tie offerings, and put up, straight and gorgeous, full of spiritual promise, the Tree of Life.

Seven flagpoles to honor Armed Forces veterans are erected in ceremony to the east, just outside the arbor—American and tribal flags snapping in the wind and portraits of fallen loved ones on chairs draped with starquilts.

Day after day, the sweatlodge stones hiss with steam, the eagle-bone whistles blow, feathers sway in the wind, and the feet of many people, in the dance ground and in the surrounding shaded arbor, keep pace with the drums and singers. Strong-pounded Sundance songs sustain the prayers of the people.

Men's sweat lodge, Sundance, 2012. Photo by Marisol Villanueva, courtesy of the Grandmothers Wisdom project.

In 2012 more than sixty dancers pledged to dance the four days, fasting from food and partly from water, about forty men and twenty women, more than half from Native communities, dressed in colorful skirts manifesting much red, an impressive sight. Always tough, the severity of sacrifice varies among the many Sundances and among the individuals who participate. Men’s chests and backs are cut and pierced, hooked to hang and pull from the Tree of Life, hooked to pull buffalo skulls until breaking free, bloody wounds of courage and pity, pleading and hope, to give of their own bodies, according to traditional teaching, the only thing that actually belongs to a human being. Women give flesh offerings from their shoulders, sometimes stitching eagle feathers to their arms. Sacrifice is prayer by gift of suffering, and at this Sundance, such activity is carried out with dignity and decorum, with much common support. Veteran dancers set the pace and mood. Macho is disdained, bragging easily identified. The prayer of an individual, his or her particular vision, elicits complete respect.

Every day, pipes are loaded with prayerful tobacco, taken into the dance, and over the day given over to selected people outside the dance who will smoke for the dancer, releasing their prayers to the universe.

Every day, water is remembered fondly, our relationship with water and memory of it deeply felt, our yearning for its gift, our appreciation of its identity in ourselves.

For four days, the people convene, the Sacred Tree sways in the wind, the singers drum and the dancers dance. It is an exciting monotony and much happens, in the wind and the sky and among the people. Oglala Lakota Tribal President John Yellowbird Steele shows up on tree day with the Oglala Sioux Tribe pipe, a beautiful red pipestone buffalo carving on a long stem. He asks for special prayers for the nation, as upcoming meetings will severely challenge its sovereignty; strength of resolve is sought. The Black Hills case is mentioned; all the Lakota tribal governments are holding firm so far: “The Black Hills are not for sale.” A family comes in with four horses to give away; a group of heyokas, or contraries, shows up, adding to the ceremony with their humorous pranks directed at the dancers, teased with buckets of water. High winds, clouds of dust, hot sands and sudden rain, meaningful clouds, exhaustion and renewal, tears of pain and hope.

Tunkashila–Wakantanka, Sun and Blue Skies, energy and movement, time. The sun is grandfather. Throughout the Native Americas, the sun is regulator, he is the day, illuminator, Creator himself or his central representation in Creation, Ahau among the Maya, Inti to the Quechua, steady, unchanging, Heart of the Sky.

Very special this year, the main prayer that unites all the dancers is dedicated to womankind—“the women.” Release from shame, from violence is sought. Native ways of North and South are recollected. The Maya Calendar days are pondered and indeed the days of the dance precisely correspond with particularly intense “women’s days” in the sacred calendar, significantly the 13 Ix. This is all noted. A mother and daughter from Navajo visit; during a break between dance rounds, they speak to the assemblage about a movement among women on reviving the practice of the ceremonial Moonlodge. Good teachings around the confusing subject of menstruation and ceremony emerge, dreams recounted. In the privacy of the men’s sweatlodges, words of respect, affection, and support of the women and the families are offered. On these and many subjects, elder teachings are shared and pondered—true purpose of a sacred gathering. Men grow as the women concentrate their power.

On day four, as the dance concludes and final blessings are sought from the dancers, other ceremonies take place. There is hunka, or the making of relatives; there is a naming and honoring gifted in eagle feathers, where the venerable cowboy, Dayton Hyde, on this sixteenth year of hosting the Sundance on his horseland, receives the Lakota name Wapiya Owanyanke—Protector of Ceremonies; there are veterans’ salutes; there are give-aways by families and individuals. There is a big feed. 

—Jose Barreiro

Jose Barreiro (Taíno) is head of the National Museum of the American Indian’s Office for Latin America. His Hemispheric Journal also appears on the Indian Country Today Media Network.


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March 19, 2012

Haudenosaunee Intellect

Jose Barreiro (Taíno), assistant director for research and head of the NMAI’s Office of Latin America, offers this dispatch on John Mohawk (Seneca, 1944–2006), a scholar, writer, and leading advocate for the rights of the Iroquois Confederacy and of Indigenous people worldwide.

The notion of bridges always called my attention. I thought about that recently as I pondered my thirty-year friendship and collaboration with Seneca historian and traditionalist John Mohawk. I landed on this particular quality of the noted figure of Native revitalization in framing remarks for the unveiling earlier this month of a plaque in John's honor—a gesture of his alma mater, Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York.

John received his Ph.D. long after he had published many major and important essays and books. Deeply rooted in his Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) longhouse culture, both ceremonial and agricultural, he had branched out to consider global issues and universal knowledge. As he once put it, "I am fully comfortable only in two places: the longhouse and the academy." The most serious of John's messages emerge from his linkage of two distinct settings, that bridge that was his life, joining the heartfelt John—in love with his culture, a participant in many aspects of ceremonial and Indian cultural life—and the intellectualized John—the researcher, the thinker, the academic, the advocate journalist, the professor. 

Better and more truthfully than most, he could carry the quality of "thinking in Indian" from the deep culture of indigenous continuity inherent in the longhouse communities of the Seneca Nation reservations and territories to contemporary, international discourse at the United Nations, the Organization of America States, and so on. His mind was global in scope, universal and classical, while his commitment was grounded in locality. He opened up crucial intellectual ground in the search for rights of indigenous nations worldwide.


Bridging is a very fruitful activity. Webbing knowledge and experience in respectful and shareable discourse is at a premium in contemporary, fragmentary climate, even on issues that have very strong scientific cohesion. At Hartwick, College Librarian Dr. Paul Coleman unveiled a plaque that presents a likeness of John, nicely profiled. I felt it a wonderful remembrance to a productive and successful life.

From a firm grounding in a traditional northeastern woodlands Indian community culture, the Seneca of western New York, John didn't just go to the larger world; he returned from the larger world, in fact, to reveal he had never left home at all. He did not have to, not economically and not intellectually. He knew, he lived, he articulated a Native intellectual tradition, well documented and even more interestingly, very well remembered.

In his essays and oratory on the great documents of Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, tradition, John wove the orations and formal language of the Longhouse Creation Story, the Great Law of Peace, the Code of Handsome Lake, into an analytical framework from which to study and interpret the world. An activist scholar, good writer, great orator, John did his best research and presentations in the longhouses, the tipis, the meeting halls of Native America. 

He also embraced the intellectual life, grounded it in his own tradition. "The Indian way," he proposed, in a 1992 keynote speech at Cornell University, "is a thinking tradition."

"The Indian way is a thinking tradition"—brilliant, liberating, this simple phrase, in his broader discourse, opened the proper Indian door to the greatest debate. Is there a Native intelligence in the Americas worthy of serious engagement? A way of life worthy of proposing its own survival? Its own contribution to  humanity? Worthy of arguing its own usefulness and rationality? Is there a Native thinking that can encompass the other world philosophies?

Beyond blinding ethnocentrisms, John argued for the great perceptive capacities among the many indigenous cultures, large bodies of knowledge that still reside within peoples—in particular places, and of place, related, even cosmologically, to specific places.

Not at all saddled by any sense of exoticism, John led many of us into a much deeper understanding of our own cultures. A student of the history of technologies, he could see the integrative and productive capacity of small-scale locality. On this question hinged the unique capacity of Indians to manifest longterm "civilization," he would point out, for having sui generis—from within—intellectual life.

"There is more to it than beads and feathers," John liked to point out. Thinking In Indian.

—J. B.

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