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A constellation of memories

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As the sorrowful reality of John Sotsisowah Mohawk’s untimely passing unfolds in our ongoing daily lives, our tears wash ashore the multitude of anecdotes, narratives, opportunities – both those seized upon and those left for “later” – and outright magical moments that we must renew in our hearts to memorialize his having been here among us in his many guises.

In the social and cultural ecology of my own Barreiro-Cook family life, John was considered a brother. In that context, I always called him by his Seneca name Sotsisowah, or Cornflower. In the small hours of a June 9, 1980, dawn, Sotsisowah climbed the two-mile logging road that led to “Hilltop,” our home in the Adirondacks where, in those politically turbulent years, Akwesasne Notes was edited and produced by John Mohawk and my husband, Jose Barreiro.

I had asked Sotsisowah to burn tobacco for my homebirth there at our primitive cabin in the mountains for our son, Anontaks Joaquin. Jose and I remember that we could hear John coming before we could see him, as he walked towards our home singing welcoming songs for our soon-to-be-born son. These songs were traditionally sung to let a village know that you are coming towards them. They are then answered from within the village to let the visitor know that their announcement has been received and that it is safe to enter the clearing. They are perfect songs for a birth as they enfold within them the human enunciation of presence, intention and performance. Quickly assembling a pile of dry kindling into a fire, John further burned tobacco for our protection.

Almost to the day a year later, John would use this same set of songs for the homebirth of his own son, Teiotsiataronwe. In these and in so many other spiritually profound and politically dangerous moments like it, John applied performativity of voice, using the power of breath in language and song to call forth life; to summon the capacity to think, to speak, to move and, yes, to act.

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Our brother has found his place now among the Rati iah kerahnoron, the Sky Beings, upon whom we continually depend for our lives here on Earth. Let him seek and find his friendly embrace in the arms of our Mother Corn for whom he himself had been named, though now that splendid name has been lifted from him and returned to his clan. We look to the Turtles and their continuity to make use of that highly esteemed name again.

In the fall of 2005, on our way to one of his many lectures at City University of New York School of Graduate Studies, John told us that he thought that there were only about 40 more years left before the hope of the survival of the ways and ceremonies of our ancestors become extinguished.

“Keep it all happening,” he instructed us. Eat a bowl of corn soup. Chew on a few kernels of roasted Iroquois white corn. Rise in darkness and sing a song to the early dawn, asking the wind, the source of our breath, to protect the life of the people. Check out Teach a child a traditional story at the proper time of year. Plant a garden. Go to the longhouse. Support the ceremonies. Live life as though this was your last day on this beautiful Earth. Let us step outside of ourselves and donate time and money to the many worthy causes he founded and supported, like the Akwesasne Freedom School and his own Iroquois White Corn Project at Pinewoods. In small and big ways, let us memorialize him and the teachings he shared.

He told us, “I am not a star.” For me and my family, he has become a constellation, a map in the sky that points the way to our future.

Katsi Cook, Mohawk, is a maternal/child health coordinator for USET and field coordinator for Running Strong for American Indian Youth in Alexandria, Va.