Skip to main content

Mohawk artist uses painting as a means for passing on tradition

AKWESASNE, N.Y. -- From the basement studio of his Akwesasne home, John B.
Thomas paints the stories his legendary father told him as a child. With
fine detail and skill developed to perfection over his 47 years, Thomas
passes on the traditions of the Mohawk the best way he knows how.

On the Mohawk reservation where Thomas grew up -- on the banks of the St.
Lawrence River in northern New York state -- paintings signed with his name
decorate the walls of countless homes and public buildings. His work is
well-known throughout the territory and well-respected elsewhere.

His scenic works depict the stories of creation and other Haudenosaunee
teachings, as passed on by the Iroquois generation after generation. His
favorite piece, "Ohenton Kariwatekwen -- Greetings and Thanksgiving," is
showered with images described in the Thanksgiving Address, the traditional
opening recitation at ceremonies and other important events. Other
paintings -- most of which are acrylic -- display on canvas the legends of
the Peacemaker, the Creator and mother earth, while shining light on other
important parts of Mohawk tradition such as clans, wampum belts, and the
three sisters (corns, beans and squash).

"Usually [my work] has something to do with the stories that were shared
with us when we were little," said Thomas. "I usually try to express some
sort of vision."

And Thomas has plenty of visions to share. His father, Frank "Standing
Arrow" Thomas, was known around Indian country for his activist ways in the
1950s and '60s. A young John watched his father stand up for Mohawk rights
and traditions after their culture had been nearly wiped out by non-Native
settlers. Standing Arrow and his wife, Georgia, spent a lifetime trying to
bring back those traditional ways, and many people today still name them as
their greatest influences.

"My father, he would always talk about the great law of peace," recalled
Thomas. "He would say, 'This is the way it's supposed to be."

With his values in place, Thomas began to paint and draw. At age 12, his
pen-and-ink drawing of a tall ship caught the attention of a schoolteacher,
who offered to buy the work for $15. Soon other teachers began asking
Thomas to paint them similar pieces, and a series of tall ship paintings
were sold.

In ninth grade, a teacher asked Thomas' class to mimic a picture of an old
building projected on the wall. Soon after, Thomas walked into his
classroom and saw his painting professionally framed and matted, hanging on
the wall.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Thomas continued his hobby and was encouraged by others who felt he had a
natural ability. He experimented with other mediums, but soon settled on
his favorite: acrylic. He has since completed countless paintings and many
commissioned works, including murals, logos and portraits.

Some might say Thomas' artistic ability is genetic. His brother, the late
Gesso Thomas, earned high esteem for his artwork as well. His airbrush
paintings -- which also carried traditional themes -- still hang on the
walls of museums, homes and schools. Georgia was a talented seamstress, and
Thomas' sisters have shown skill in beadworking and basketmaking. The
Thomas family seems to have an unarguable knack for creativity.

Thomas has followed his parents' advice in more ways than one. His father
once told him, "Enjoy life. Enjoy it, but there's a way to enjoy it." So
Thomas later became a drug and alcohol counselor, passing on that same

Standing Arrow spent many hours of his life sharing his knowledge and
stories with the youth of Akwesasne. So Thomas, too, has visited classrooms
and passed on the stories to another generation, his own three children

But, the most important messages Thomas has to offer are taught through his
art. When Mohawks were converted to Christianity at the turn of the
century, many times against their own will, the stories, songs and dances
weren't all that were lost and nearly forgotten. The way of thinking was
also changed.

Today, said Thomas, most Mohawks are concerned with paying bills, buying
food at the grocery store and getting medicine from a hospital.

"There was a time when we had our hands right in the dirt," said Thomas.
"The way we live, our way of thinking ... It's different now. We strive now
to understand what it means to be Onkwehonwe."

Thomas hopes that through his art he can help people understand traditional
thought by simply exposing them to the same stories Mohawks have been
sharing for generations. From understanding the role of family to
appreciating the life of a tree or stream of water, Thomas is doing his
part one brush stroke at a time.