In the Words of A Mohawk


While working on the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation in the United States, I was part of a delegation of Native Americans to a Bilingual Education conference in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Native Americans across the continent were going through a period of great social unrest. Indian reservations had become breeding grounds for alcoholism and more recently, teenage drug abuse. These ills were all rooted in the policies of early American expansionism and sustained by an alarming breakdown in tribal family structures, the erosion of native languages, and the spectre tribal in-fighting.

The conference was addressed by several elders from the Mohawk, Muskogee and Ojibway tribes. Here is the address by Mohawk elder Tom Porter from New York State.

“Two Indians went out in a canoe on the clean clear waters of the river. They were going fishing. As they moved along the river, a sparkling flash caught their eyes from the shore. They stopped and looked. Like all Indians, they loved shiny sparkling things. They went up the tree and brought down two tiny little snakes, so small, only the length of their hands. One was gold and one was silver.

The Indians fondled the lovely little creatures and thought: ‘If we leave them here a great bird might come by and swallow them up. Or some other Indians might come by and kill them because, after all, they are snakes. But oh, they are too pretty to die.’ Also, they thought, ‘If we bring them back to the village, all will come to see them and they will talk about us and we will have a great name.’

So back they went to their village with the snakes, their fishing forgotten. They built a small pen for the snakes and tended, fed, and watched over them. The Indians noticed a curious thing about the snakes. They never slept. No matter what the hour, there they would be, wiggling and moving about with their eyes open. It was like the Indians were hypnotised by those wakeful eyes and those shining bodies.

The Indians caught mosquitoes and insects and fed them to the snakes. But no matter how many mosquitoes they fed them, the snakes were never filled. They grew bigger and bigger and a new pen had to be built to hold the snakes who were now as long as the long house. Deer were hunted and fed to them and the snakes swallowed them whole.

One day the men of the village went away hunting.The women heard a loud crash and children screaming. When they rushed outside, they saw one grandson inside the snake’s mouth. The snakes had broken out of the stockade and were devouring the children.

Grandmothers grabbed up sticks and stones and began beating the monsters, hoping they could cause the snakes to vomit up the children. But the snakes grabbed up the grandmothers and swallowed them too. When the men came back and saw the snakes devouring their families, one of them called out.

‘Here is what we must do.’ But another said, ‘No, you are wrong. Here is what we must do.’ And yet another said, ‘No, No. We must do this.’

Suddenly, the monsters stopped. They turned and moved off to the woods. Well, they were gone and life in the village settled down. Now that the danger was past, the people pushed the snakes to the back of their minds.They did nothing.

One day a runner came streaking into the village from the north. He had been out hunting and suddenly the mountains began to move. Then over the top came the monster with eyes darting in and out and hot smoke was coming from his mouth.

Well, the men of village began to fight and argue. ‘We must do this.’ ‘No, we must do this.’ And all the while, the snakes were closing in. They were now coming over the nearest hill, ready to pounce and finish off all that remained of the village.

Then, there appeared a small figure who commanded them: ‘Stop fighting one another or the monsters will devour you. You must listen and do what I tell you, if you are to save your people. Go and cut down the strongest, tallest tree and make of it a bow and arrow. Then get a white arrowhead for the tip. Take a long, strong hair from the clan mother’s head and string your bow. With these you can kill the monster.’
And there the story stops, but it does not end.

The gold and silver serpents are the powerful countries of North America. The tree is the Indian people and the arrowhead stands for their chiefs. The hair is the power of the Indian woman. Neither the arrow nor the bow can have any power with out the power of the hair of the woman.

The serpents are the two nations of the US and Canada that swallowed the Indian children who have lost their language and traditions. The grandparents who were devoured were those who did not teach the children these things. The serpents never slept, like the great cities that never sleep. The eyes of the serpents flashed like the neon lights in those big cities, drawing in and deluding the young. The bodies of the serpents threw up dirt and mud in the waters as they passed through, like the great nations now muddy the rivers and oceans. The heat and smoke from the mouths of the serpents are the smog and pollution from those cities. And who is Small Boy? Could this be Chief Smallboy of the Ojibway Nation who has left his reserve in Canada and moved far to the north? He has left the alcohol and drugs and the new civilisation of his reserve and taken his people back to their old Indian ways. Is this the beginning of the American Indians’ self-salvation?”

In these times of great struggle for the people of Ireland, we might do well to reflect on the startling corollaries between the American Indian’s experience and our own. The serpents of the EU/IMF confuse us with their flashing eyes and they muddy the waters with their false starts. They pollute the air with their fabrications. Their appetites grow bigger and bigger. No matter how many concessions they get from the Irish people, they want more. Their demands grow greater and greater. And when we have no more to give, they will devour us all.

Meanwhile, our own chiefs bicker and bicker. “We should do this.” No, we should do that.” Where is our own Chief Smallboy? Who will lead us off this Irish reservation – surrounded by, and being devoured by, the great countries of Europe? Step forward, Chief Smallboy. The Irish nation needs you.

By Geraldine O’Connell Cusack