Mohawk Women Integrate the Condolence Ceremony Into Modern Systems


Statistically speaking, tribal communities across North America face some of the continent’s highest rates of poverty, addiction, domestic violence and obesity. These social ills have persisted since as early as the 1950s, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates.

But in the last decade or so, social scientists and public health officials have begun to better understand why some of these problems are so chronic. This they have done by framing the concept of “historical trauma.”

Some light was shed on this notion at “Native Women’s Empowerment: A Mohawk Reflection,” a session of the March 10 symposium “Protocols of Peace: Native Condolence and the Good Mind,” hosted by the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) at the George Gustav Heye Center in Manhattan. The takeaway was that unresolved historical grief, stemming from centuries of genocide and assimilation, is still being passed down from generation to generation.

Today, social workers and health advocates across Indian country have embraced this theory and have responded by introducing programs that are focused on the healing process. Epitomizing the effort are Mohawk communities in Six Nations territories that are now incorporating a traditional grieving ritual designed to rehabilitate their cases most in need.

Known as the condolence ceremony, the sacred practice of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy is rooted in prayer and song. The idea is to clear the mind and body of negative sorrow, grief or concern.

Historically, the ceremony was performed following the death of a loved one or a great tribal leader. Today, condolence is also used to provide support to patients, troubled teens, and even former prisoners as a means of responding to the chronic trends of abuse in the region.

“It’s giving of compassion and empathy,” said Beverly Cook, a nurse practitioner and clinic coordinator at St. Regis Mohawk Health Services in Akwesasne, a Mohawk community located along the St. Lawrence River in Northern New York.

Over the past decade, Cook has worked with others in her community to begin integrating cultural healing practices in patient treatment, prenatal care, alcohol and substance addiction, and sexual assault response.

 Louise McDonald

Louise McDonald

Traditionally, the Haudenosaunee would complete a condolence ceremony with the exchange of a string of wampum, or at times, a belt—an elaborately beaded band given to the bereaved. But health advocates of today have taken a more figurative approach to practicing this ceremony by virtue of sacred songs, prayers and readings, Cook said. In some instances, the condolence ceremony may involve the use of such materials as eagle feathers, deer hides and water.

The afternoon Protocols of Peace event featured guest speakers, including scholars Rick Hill (Tuscarora) and G. Peter Jemison (Seneca). Also present was Dr. Susan Kalter, who elaborated on the historical context of the condolence ceremony and the story of Ayenwatha (also known as “Hiawatha”), believed to be the originator of the condolence. Attendees also learned that the ceremony played a role in 18th century peace-treaty negotiations among the Haudenosaunee, Canada and the United States. During this time, they exchanged wampum belts that featured patterns woven from carefully selected beads and signaled friendship and ultimately peace.

Against this background, Cook and two other Mohawk women traveled to New York City to discuss how they are rethinking condolence and applying it to contemporary Native life. Joining Cook was traditional Clan Mother Louise McDonald and restorative justice advocate Mary Ann Spencer from Ontario.

“Today’s Native people have lost their spiritual center,” McDonald told the audience of about 150. As a Bear Clan Mother for the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs in Akwesasne, she called on finding ways to achieve “connectedness” again.

Spencer, of Tontakaie'rina (“It has become right again”), the Tyendinaga Justice Circle in Ontario, echoed those concerns. Many young Mohawks, she said, are not prepared to embrace traditional healing practices because they suffer from a loss of cultural and traditional knowledge. “There was something lacking in the communication,” she said. “Young people just weren’t prepared to journey into the circle.”

There are several good cultural explanations for this, and they date back over a century. Beginning in the 19th century, the residential boarding school experience destroyed many aspects of Indian language and culture. For the Mohawk, that process continued well into the 20th century as scores of men who moved from their reservation to take jobs as iron workers in urban centers like New York City. From the 1920s to the 1970s, this way of life would usher in a cultural imbalance in the tribal community, according to the Haudenosaunee Confederacy website timeline of the Mohawk iron workers’ legacy. That negative impact is still being felt today.

Not surprisingly, it is sometimes difficult to integrate practices like the condolence ceremony into today’s world. “It’s an ongoing slow process at times,” said Spencer, who works in the community of Tyendinaga with at-risk teens who have either been victims of crime or charged with a crime.

In a community bordered by non-aboriginal judges, attorneys, police officers and the like, Spencer hopes hers practice will curtail chronic rates of criminal offenses in the future—despite the challenge of reintroducing cultural healing to young Mohawks.

“It allows them the time to heal through the condolence, and maybe putting them through sweats or singing songs or incorporating that music and the language and the teachings, [it] can only better an individual,” Spencer said.

While success of the condolence ceremonies cannot be measured, for Cook, evidence of their restorative power is evident in individuals. During her presentation at NMAI, Cook described one heartfelt experience involving a prisoner who memorized, word for word, a condolence prayer sent to him upon his release.

“He said all he had to hold on to was the condolence message,” said Cook. “There’s lots of stories like this and there’s very rarely ever a dry eye.”