Sunday, November 18, 2012

Mohawk History, Mohawk Pride

Editor's note: A different version of this story appeared in the Nov. 10, 2012 edition of the Berkshire Eagle. 

Jerry Thundercloud McDonald recalled the first time he entered his clan’s longhouse when he was 12, following the death of his mother.

"It was like watching a moving picture show," he said of the dancing and singing. "I was very inspired to learn about the tribal history of our people."

He recently shared the history of the Mohawk Nation and the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy through song, dance and storytelling. The versatile singer, storyteller, dancer, choreographer, and actor, was dressed in traditional costume, which included a headdress and a variety of hide clothing.

McDonald is a member of the Wolf Clan and lives in the Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne, a tribal area along the banks of the St. Lawrence River that straddles upstate New York and the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario.

The longhouse, the center of tribal activity at Akwesasne and elsewhere, is a place of "joy and inspiration" where McDonald learned "a great deal of respect," he said.

McDonald discussed the various traditional instruments used in Mohawk ceremonies, from the water drum, which as the name suggests is filled with water, to the big drum, a moose-hide-covered instrument you can feel in your chest when he beats out a rhythm.

McDonald described how the Great Law of Peace, the oral constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy -- a union of five tribes that some scientists believe dates back close to a thousand years, (a sixth tribe joined the confederation in the 18th century) -- helped inspire the Founding Fathers in their writing of the U.S. Constitution, including the ideas of checks and balances and the separation of powers. Several of the nation’s symbols, including the Eagle holding arrows (look for it on the back of the dollar bill) comes directly from the Iroquois tradition, according to McDonald.

McDonald was also a so-called "skywalker," one of many Mohawk men who have worked in New York City doing skyscraper construction work, scampering along thin steel beams thousands of feet in the air. His last job was on the new Yankee Stadium, he said. He once fell several stories while working and woke up to find he has crushed his left clavicle.

His father, whom he never met was also a skywalker, as had been his father before him.