Iroquois Women to Discuss Contemporary Empowerment at National Museum of the American Indian


Numerous Haudenosaunee culture-bearers and historians will meet in New York City on Saturday, March 10 to participate in a panel discussion about the inherent leadership of women in their matrilineal communities. The event "Native Women's Empowerment: A Mohawk Reflection," open to the public, will take place at the National Museum of the American Indian in the George Gustav Heye Center.

Mohawk women from Haudenosaunee territories in New York and Ontario will share ways they have transformed ancient traditions into contemporary practices. Traditional Clan Mother Louise McDonald, community health leader Beverly Cook, and restorative justice advocate Mary Ann Spencer will discuss their roles, responsibilities and passions as women leaders in the Iroquois community.

Bear Clan Mother for the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs in Akwesasne, McDonald plays a pivotal role in selecting and raising the Nation's leaders. In her role as the prevention specialist for the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne’s Wholistic Health and Wellness department, McDonald organizes the 20-week Ohero:kon (meaning “under the husk”) program. In the rites of passage ceremony, adolescents and their families learn traditional teachings. The community effort incorporates activities related to teen relationships and sexuality, wilderness survival, communication skills, star knowledge, personal journaling and energy work.

“I tell them at the beginning and throughout the process that their participation is a signal to others that they are serious about living a good life, finding a good partner and contributing to our nation,” says McDonald. “I say, ‘So when you see a girl carrying a moon basket, leave her alone! She’s going to be a woman worth waiting for.’”

Spencer, who hails from Tyendinaga, a Mohawk territory along the Bay of Quinte in Ontario, Canada, specializes in Indigenous approaches to restorative justice and cultural healing practices.

She is the Program Elder at Sir Wilfrid Laurier University near Toronto for the Master of Social Work, Aboriginal Field of Study Program through the department of Social Work, where she teaches “indigenizing” the social work process by applying holistic approaches, such as love and compassion, that students practice in the field.

“We have all of these residual effects from the impact of colonization in our communities, and the youth are dealing with those effects,” explains Spencer. “That's why we include the whole community in ‘righting the wrong,’ in restoring an individual.

“It shows how intelligent we are as Haudenosaunee people, that we use the original instructions from our Creation story to become stronger and continue on in contemporary times,” Spencer says. “It's a very beautiful and reciprocol process.”

Cook, a family nurse practitioner at St. Regis Mohawk Health Services and a 2010 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leader nominee, directs the community’s CenteringPregnancy model of prenatal care—the first tribal Centering program in the country to receive site certification. Centering brings prenatal moms together in a group care setting for education, self-assessment and support.

“Centering is an opportunity to raise a consciousness in the women,” Cook notes, “to tell them they and their babies together are a powerful prayer.”

Cook's presentation "You are Creation" tells the Haudenosaunee myth of the Sky Woman and relates it to epigenetics, a field that reveals how environment and personal choices influence gene expression. In the nature-versus-nurture debate, Cook makes a compelling argument for nurture, acknowledging and validating grandma's advice on how to behave during pregnancy and childbirth.

In the afternoon breakout session "Protocols of Peace: Native Condolence and the Good Mind in Northeastern America," historians and culture-based scholars from throughout the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy will discuss how to lift the burdens of grief through traditional Condolence ceremony—an integral part of Haudenosaunee life. Through this practice, stress and suffering are relieved so they do not become a disease.

"Our communities are full of people who have traveled—and are still on—a rough road. Somewhere we have to intervene and a good place to start is by acknowledging their journeys," says Cook. "That's what Condolence is."

The intimate event will feature activists and authors Richard Hill (Tuscarora); Peter Jemison (Seneca), a visual artist of 30 years; and historian Dr. Susan Kalter.