By Arcie Mallari (Sauvé Scholar 2010-11)

On March 20, 2011, the Sauvé Scholars welcomed a Chief Tahanakarine (also known as Mr. Curtis Nelson) in the Sauvé Mansion for a conversation over tea.

His name means “dragging the horns across the lands.” As a Traditionally Condoled Chief, he sits on the National Council of Chiefs, the body that oversees all of the Mohawk communities, and meets to discuss and decide on National issues. Chief Tahanakarine is also the Director of O’nento:kon Treatment Centre in Kahnawá:ke.

The very engaging Chief Tahanakarine began his session with the Mohawk prayer, during which he gave thanks to all the animals, plants and bird life, thunder, winds and stars that give direction to the people.  His talk was about the Mohawk culture and language as well as about current issues and concerns affecting their people.

He first shared with the Scholars the Cycle of Ceremonies of the Mohawk people, which starts with the biggest ceremony called the Midwinter Ceremony, an event at which everybody in the community celebrates the one year’s end and another’s beginning.  This generally happens during the 2nd week of January.  Other ceremonies are the Maple Festival, Maple Syrup Harvest, Thunder Dance, Okiiweh (Feast for the Dead), Atowi (Medicine Mask Society Evening), Sun Dance, Moon Dance, Ceremony March, Planting Season, Strawberry Festival, String Bean Festival, Green Corn Ceremony, and Harvest Thanksgiving.

Chief Tahanakarine also discussed the important role of women in the community.  We learned how Mohawk women are put upon the highest pedestal, not only because they give birth, but also because of their responsibility of choosing the Chief.  In addition, the Mohawk clan system, comprised of three clans – Bear, Wolf, and Turtle – is matrilineal. And unlike in most cultures, the Clan Mother is the one who names children, based on the events of the day that the children were born.

It was fascinating to learn from the Chief how the Mohawk People make decisions.  They do not practice decision making by majority, as do so many European-based cultures. Instead, all community members must agree on a decision before it is taken.  If any member does not agree with a decision, then the discussion will continue until it reaches a consensus and everyone is of one mind.

Chief Tahanakarine also showed us the purple and white Five Nations flag, which represents Iroquois Confederacy (established in the 1600’s) to which the Mohawk Nation belongs.  The Confederacy between the five Iroquois nations is based on values of peace, respect, and collaboration. The Mohawk people are considered the ‘Keepers of the Eastern Door’ because they are the easternmost nation within the Confederacy.

Chief Tahanakarine concluded by advising the Scholars to live each day as if it were our last, to appreciate what Mother Earth has given us, and to know that everything and everyone has a purpose.

As a sign of friendship with the Sauvé Scholars Foundation, Chief Tahanakarine gave the Scholars their Five Nations Flag, which we now proudly display at Sauvé House.

We were honoured by this gift, and are deeply grateful to have had the opportunity to host such a remarkable and inspiring guest, and to learn more about the Mohawk people and the Iroquois nation.