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In memory of Sotsisowah – John C. Mohawk

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The skies over Haudenosaunee land have opened for the passing of Sotsisowah, John Mohawk. The respected and beloved historian, activist, scholar and dear friend to many passed away Dec. 12. We extend heartfelt condolences to John’s family and friends. He leaves behind a great wealth of knowledge and experience of the joy, pain, rights and responsibilities of Indian people. John Mohawk, Ph.D., the Seneca scholar from the Cattaraugus Reservation, was an unrivaled leader in academia. In a strong legacy line of the prophet Handsome Lake, Mohawk’s good mind and brilliant oratory inspired many to pursue higher education in Indian studies and other fields. As a popular columnist for Indian Country Today, Mohawk covered a broad range of current events, social issues and political drama, all exhibiting his depth of knowledge and signature sense of humor. We would like to share a few excerpts from Mohawk’s collection of opinion pieces, the full texts of which can be found in ICT’s online archive at It is indeed a virtual and real treasure of one of the finest voices of our time. John Mohawk, on traditional food: “I once heard that culture is what one does without thinking about it. This was in regard to the foods people eat as well as the customs they follow. In the days before the [diabetes] epidemic Indian people didn’t need to think about what they needed to do. It was a given that people would get exercise because there wasn’t much choice. There were no cars and, in most cases, few horses, so unless one was going to just lie around, they had to walk. And since no one was raising food for them and food stamps were unknown, people who wanted to eat had to do something: hunt, fish, garden – all good exercise.” On climate change: “The debate over global warming highlights an unexpected phenomenon in U.S. culture. The U.S., an enthusiastic participant in the 18th century intellectual movement known as the enlightenment, seems poised to turn its back on the method of skeptical inquiry into patterns of fact and revert to old ways which sought answers to all questions in Scripture. Some Indian prophecies predict very difficult times, but not an end to all life. Contemporary American culture, especially its political culture, is influenced by expectations of a biblical end-time, a ‘second coming’ and the end of nature. Who would have thought a time would come when the Indian prophets and the scientists would be on one side, and the end-of-nature crowd would direct environmental policy from Washington?” On “revitalization fever”: “The thing about ideologues is they are not like scientists who try something until they find something that works. Ideologues are believers, big time. They have a plan to create a perfect world based on faith in an ideology, and to back away from the plan in any way would betray those beliefs. Because it’s about belief, none of the Bush administration can ever admit their approach was wrong. They are doomed to keep trying and trying to make it work. The occupation of Iraq is more than a simple military occupation, it is an opportunity to prove that free market economics free of government interference and regulation of any kind, open to investors from all over the world, will attract unlimited investment and create a prosperous economy. It is a utopian solution that cannot fail because its proponents believe they understand how the world works and belief is thought, by them, to have magical powers.” On colonization: “Colonization is the greatest health risk to indigenous peoples as individuals and communities. It produces the anomie – the absence of values and sense of group purpose and identity – that underlies the deadly automobile accidents triggered by alcohol abuse. It creates the conditions of inappropriate diet which lead to an epidemic of degenerative diseases, and the moral anarchy that leads to child abuse and spousal abuse. Becoming colonized was the worst thing that could happen five centuries ago, and being colonized is the worst thing that can happen now.” On effective negotiation: “The Onondaga clan mothers told their story. They were not willing to lose one more inch of land. They were very consistent with this stand. At another point, when the power company wanted to build a power line through Onondaga Territory, the company offered every Onondaga household free electricity forever for the right of way. The Onondaga refused. One of a few traditional governments left in North America, they can be very principled. The power company was forced to build its transmission grid around the Territory. The Onondaga used a moral argument effectively, but they also put forward people of high integrity to represent the argument. Not every Indian group could have pulled it off.” Finally, on giving thanks: “The Indians … recognized that life, all life on the planet, is a miracle of good fortune, that it is dependent on numerous components which include earth and vegetation and water and sun and moon and in all a complex order of higher powers and that humans, as a species which is aware of this good fortune, has an obligation to express a collective statement of gratitude in joyous celebration of the good gifts of the powers of the universe. That, for the Indians, was an important part of their “old time religion.”

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