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Akwesasne Mohawk retrieve Olympic Flame from Greece

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AKWESASNE, Ontario – Aronhiaies Herne, a 23-year-old teacher and cultural program coordinator from the Mohawk community of Akwesasne, has been selected as one of 11 aboriginal youths that will have the job of a lifetime over the next few months – running with the Olympic Flame as its guide and protector to ensure it keeps burning bright on its cross-Canada journey.

He will be joined by two Akwesasne Mohawks who were also chosen to have an active part in the 2010 Olympic Torch Relay – Mike Benedict Jr. (community torchbearer) and Howard “Iothore” Thompson (honorary elder fire keeper).

Herne’s journey as a flame attendant began Oct. 27 when he traveled to Greece, the birthplace of the modern-day Olympic Games, to safeguard the flame as it made its way to Canada. He is one of two aboriginal youths chosen to retrieve the Olympic Flame based on his performance at a test event. He was selected to watch over and maintain the flame before and during the longest domestic relay in Olympic history.

“To be nominated by your own community is a great honor,” Herne said. “I wouldn’t be able to take part in this once-in-a-lifetime event without the support of my family. I want to express my appreciation to them and to the community for allowing me to represent Akwesasne as a flame attendant in the Olympic Torch Relay.”

Herne is a Mohawk language and cultural preservationist for the community of Akwesasne. He was a fourth grade teacher at the Akwesasne Freedom School for four years, where he continues to volunteer his time to teach Mohawk students in social and ceremonial songs. For the past two years, he has also worked as the cultural program coordinator at the Akwesasne Boys & Girls Club. Herne is also a condoled sub-chief for the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs – one of the youngest in more than a generation.

Herne was originally nominated as a community torchbearer by his wife, Kaienthokwas, and was nominated as an aboriginal youth flame attendant by the Akwesasne Olympic Torch Organizing Committee. Both nominations were based on Herne’s life-long pursuit of promoting language and culture, as well as his athletic achievements and contributions to the Mohawk community of Akwesasne.

For three years he has played for the Akwesasne Wolves, a Junior “B” hockey team in the Eastern Ontario Junior Hockey League, and in the 2006 – 2007 season was selected as the team’s most valuable player. Herne will be utilizing his experience as an assistant coach during the Akwesasne Wolve’s upcoming hockey season. In the off-season, Herne plays lacrosse for the Cornwall Island Redman in the Senior “B” Lacrosse League.

In his nomination as a flame attendant, the Akwesasne Organizing Committee noted that Herne’s traditional upbringing has taught him from a young age to make decisions based on what is best for the community. Since graduating from high school, he has worked to cultivate and pass on the Mohawk culture and language to the community’s youth. Herne’s willingness to share his knowledge makes him an ideal ambassador of not only Akwesasne, but for all Haudenosaunee people. His internal fire and strength will help keep the Olympic Flame lit during its journey across Canada.



Community Torchbearers

Mike Benedict Jr., Akwesasne, was selected to be among 119 community torchbearers to carry the Olympic Flame in their respective First Nations communities. All community torchbearers were nominated by neighbors, family and friends who felt they best represented their community’s achievements and dreams.

Benedict will carry the Olympic Torch along a designated route when it visits Akwesasne, as well as take part in a ceremony with a community elder when it arrives in December.

Benedict is a well-known community member and athlete, excelling in sports at various levels throughout his life – not only as an athlete, but as a coach and often as a referee. He was a member of a high school hockey team that won the New York State Championship during his senior year, and which traveled to Sweden and Finland to play. In 2008, his state championship hockey team was inducted into the Salmon River Central School’s Sports Hall of Fame.

Benedict is also one of the best lacrosse players of his generation, having been a member of championship-winning teams and named to several all-star teams, as well as game MVPs. He has played in England for the Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse Team and began his professional lacrosse career in 1995 in the Major Indoor Lacrosse League, with his team winning the World Lacrosse Championship in 1997.



Honorary Elder Fire Keepers

Fire keepers traditionally play a dual role in aboriginal ceremonies: They are tasked with keeping fires burning during ceremonies and teaching the spiritual meanings of the fire. Whenever the Olympic Flame arrives in an aboriginal community during the Olympic Torch Relay, an elder chosen by his or her people will act as an honorary fire keeper and perform a short ceremony for the flame. The role is an honor and acknowledgment of the person’s commitment to the teachings of their nation.

There will be 119 fire keepers for the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Torch Relay, including Mohawk elder Howard “Iothore” Thompson of Akwesasne. Thompson, who is a condoled chief for the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs, will welcome the Olympic Flame, on behalf of the Mohawk people, during a brief ceremony when the Olympic Torch makes a scheduled stop in Akwesasne during the month of December.