The Haudenosaunee | Part Two, Ohentonkariwatehkwen

I suggested in the previous instalment of this series that the improbable unity of the Rotinonsion:ni (Iroquois) arrived as a matter of extraordinary good fortune, in combination with great effort and practical necessity. One is well advised not to take such a thing for granted, and so we arrive at the Ohentonkariwatehkwen, or “the words which come before all others,” also known as the Thanksgiving Address.

The Thanksgiving Address has a number of variants, all following a pattern which is set forth in the Kaianerekowa, or Great Law of Peace. As the name indicates, the Thanksgiving Address is spoken first, before all other business or ceremony. The purposes of the Address are to clear the thoughts of distractions, promote unity, and in general to foster a state of mindfulness. I’ve heard it described as a prayer, but I’m of the view that this misses the point. Yes, there is giving of thanks, but the Address scrupulously attends to, and strives to counter-act, the inevitable distractions, divisions, and self-absorptions to which we are as a species prone. If we were constituted otherwise, the Thanksgiving Address’ reminders of duty and rejoinders to “bring our minds together as one” would perhaps be quite unnecessary.

Elsewhere, I have already noted that Hiawatha conceived what became the foundation of the Condolence ceremony. It is said that, following the death of his daughters, he fashioned three strings of wampum and thereby committed himself to speak their words of consolation to any grieving person he encountered. The Peacemaker, noting Hiawatha’s grief, fashioned an additional ten, completing the thirteen wampum strings of the Condolence ceremony. The Peacemaker then recited the Condolence to Hiawatha, which we are told gradually dispelled the latter’s oppressive burden of grief.

A nice story, that, you may say. But there is depth here we are well advised to notice. First of all, Hiawatha’s self-proclaimed and high-minded commitment to consoling others is only part of his story. We are told that he has left his own community because no one there would or could console him after the death of his seven daughters (killed by a sorcerer, to ensure that he would go forth to meet the Peacemaker, as foretold by prophecy). He leaves his home, and having found some quahog shells, tells himself, “I am going to help others.” But then he adds, over and again, “Men boast of what they would do, but they do not do what they say. What I say, I will surely do.”

You can smell the festering resentment coming off of that telling refrain: “my people are no goddamned good.” Hiawatha is traumatized, and his community is of no help. (The practical relevance of this situation, which goes by the term “lateral violence,” will be obvious to many Indigenous people today.) Moreover, there is a case to be made that it is the fault of his people that he is exiled and tormented, and he knows it. The Peacemaker grasps immediately that the principal impediment to Iroquois unity is just this sort of buried pain. It must be dealt with before all else. The Hiawatha story indicates the need to approach the work of social and political harmony through the healing of personal trauma, a fact which helps one understand the broad usage of the Condolence among the Haudenosaunee. This approach also explains why my good friend Kanatiio prefaces the Ohentonkariwatehkwen with Hiawatha’s three condolence strings. Both affirm unity, but the Condolence astutely acknowledges the personal distresses which invariably determine and impede so much of community life:

It is said that, as we walk the path that is our life, there are times when things happen to distract us. When this happens it is easy for us to lose our way and stray from the path that is the good mind, and we suddenly find ourselves stumbling through the brush. As we struggle to push our way through the underbrush, trying to regain the clear path, we pick up burrs and thorns that cling to our clothing, pricking our skin. We get dusty and scared. Our fear causes us to cry and our hearts to pound.

Together, Ohentonkariwatehkwen and the Condolence constitute the core formal ceremonies of the Haudenosaunee — the words which come before any, and all, else. Given the historical sufferings of the people, which fester today, these ceremonies remain both rooted in, and relevant to, the realities of life.


Next in the series: Part Three, That Which Divides Us.

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