coming-of-age process brings Mohawk Akwesasne youth to adulthood
group of young Haudenosaunees complete their rites of passage
through Ohero:kon (o-ho-lo-go), after emerging from "under
the husk" as full-fledged adults. (photo by Matika Wilbur)
A few weeks ago I witnessed a beautiful group of young Haudenosaunees
complete their rites of passage through Ohero:kon (o-ho-lo-go),
where they emerged from "under the husk" as fully self-actualized,
honorable young adultsa truly rare experience for this day
It's a wonderful thing to watch aunties, uncles, clan mothers,
chiefs, mama bears and younger siblings groom young people to become
Onkehonwe: the real peopleyoung indigenous thinkers who provide
so much hope for our future generations.
Ohero:kon is not an easy process. It's a four-year commitment
during which nieces and nephews will gather every Sunday in the
longhouse for 20 weeks throughout the winter months to prepare themselves
for adulthood. They will learn to build a fire using traditional
sparked flint and dry grass; they will listen to advice from their
elders on topics ranging from intergenerational trauma, to traditional
health and wellness practices, to how to foster healthy, loving
relationships. They will plant seeds and tend traditional three-sister
gardens of corn, beans and squash. They will make regalia, learn
their traditional songs and practice their own indigenous languages.
But maybe most important, they will learn their own strength and
go on spiritual fasts in the woods until they are eventually ready,
in their fourth year, to spend four days and four nights in the
woods without food, drink or contact.
The aunties and uncles will prepare them with incredible care.
Just as a farmer tends to his seedswatering, singing, grooming
and ensuring lightso will the aunties and uncles tend to their
precious seedling nieces and nephews. They will help them choose
their places in the woods, help them build their lodges, protect
them with sacred tobacco, and while they fast, will tend the fire
and look to the tree people to watch over their beloved children.
Most of the preparations will commence at a place called Kaneni:io
[gan-a-he-yo: good seed] or down the road at Tsionkwanatiio [joan-gwan-a-dee-yo],
beautiful facilities nestled along the Saint Lawrence river. And
the spaces feel epic. Think back to those beautiful scenes of the
Shire, hobbit land, in the first Lord of The Rings movie, and you
will kind of get the mental picture: Rolling hills hug luscious
bright green trees where massive fields of fresh grass and fertile
gardens all seem to touch the sky. At one point, Kaneni:io was going
to be the new site for the Freedom
School, until funding wasn't achieved, and development was halted,
leaving it a mostly finished, barn-like space full of sprouting
seeds under ultraviolet light, braided corn hanging from every wall,
and several workstations for gourd-painting, stick- carving, moccasin-making
and corn-grinding. I understand that it still serves as a community
space for the growing and nourishment of all kinds of things, including
children. It's an indigenous woman's dream, with a fireplace, a
sweat lodge and traditional arbor in the back yard.
youth opt to spend four years in rigorous training for adulthood.
(photo by Matika Wilbur)
Of course, Ohero:kon wasn't realized overnight. It has been
developing organically over the past 14 years. It was the vision
brought to fruition by manyLouise Wakerakats:te Bear in particular,
known to many by her moniker, Mama Bear.
"The need for Ohero:kon came at a time when our community had
a lot of social distress," Bear said. "It was just through the prayers
of mothers wanting to do something different that we formalized
She explains that the rites of passage ceremony was given in
Haudenosaunee creation story, a tradition that has been happening
since the beginning of time:
"It happened in Skyworld," she said. "An uncle takes his sister's
children when he realized that they were children of destiny
he set them aside from the rest and put them under the husk," covering
them the way corn ears are swathed in their husks, because they
were destined to fulfill a prophecy.
"In our language we call corn o'he: ra which means 'it's fully
husked,' " said Bear. "It's not until the corn is ripe that you
begin to peel back the layers of husk to get to the regenerative
seed. When our children hit puberty, we begin to pull back the layers
and equip them with knowledge about who they are. A big part of
Ohero:kon is to offer them knowledge about their creation story
so they can understand the genesis of our selves . . . so they know
who they are before they become influenced by other people."
Co-founder, educator and filmmaker Katsitsionni Fox said that
Ohero:kon was created as a change agent for Akwesasne.
"It was something we could do for the youth to keep them away
from drugs, teen pregnancy, self-harm, all those things that are
going on in our communities," Fox said.
Bear delved into Mohawk history to retrieve the ceremony, said
Fox, gathering knowledge keepers together and plumbing dreams.
"The youth who fully commit to the Ohero:kon will learn their
purpose in life at a younger age," Fox said. It's a tough program,
she emphasized, with not all of them making it through.
"Sometimes they will make it one year, then they won't come
back," Fox said. "It's the ones that are really invested that will
stay for all four years."
For those who stick it out, "it really alters their path," she
said. "It makes them find their purpose sooner. They don't waste
a lot of time."
Being in ceremony together brings them closer, connecting them
with each other and the community, Fox added. Fox has made
a beautiful film about the program, including a trailer.
Once the fourth-years come out of their fast, they look shiny
and new, glowing with accomplishment and a radiance that is hard
to describe. At their graduation ceremony, the fourth-year nieces
and nephews shared what they've learned with tribal leaders.
graduation ceremony of Mohawk youth into adulthood. (photo
by Matika Wilbur)
Bear recalled one of her most memorable experiences, with a
niece who had a dream about the Thunder Beings.
"In this dream, or vision, she met the Thunder Beings, and they
told her their names in the Mohawk language, and we were able to
record that and revitalize those names," said Bear. "And now, when
we burn tobacco for the Thunder Beings in the spring and in the
fall, we acknowledge those names."
Several of the nieces and nephews even brought back stories
to encourage their people to return to traditional food systems,
One of the nephews this year dreamed that he came out of his
fast and went to the sacred fire and nobody was there, so he went
to kaneni:io and found it also empty, and then he went to the longhouse
and nobody was there either. He realized that all of the culture
bearers were gone, that he would have to carry the culture forward,
that he was the last one. Then he woke up, grateful to know there
were still culture bearers to guide him, and grateful that he will
be able to carry his culture forward.
Ohero:kon has become a driving force mobilizing the community,
Bear said, and has healed
a lot of divisions as the community committed to working together
"for the love of our children," she said. "Ohero:kon reduced the
crime rate. It reduced teen pregnancy. It reduced juvenile delinquency.
But most important, it also returned a lot of young people back
to our longhouses."
O:herokon is about planting seeds. Seeds of knowledge. Seeds
of hope. Seeds that make leaders. Or as my beautiful niece Quinna
Hamby describes it, "It connected me to community. I know that my
community will always forgive me. That I can go back to them. I
know that I am a traditional person, and even though I might be
going away to college, I can always come home."
ceremony for Mohawk youth completing a four-year coming-of-age
ritual to bring them to adulthood. (photo by Matika Wilbur)