Planting seeds of pride

TUPPER LAKE – According to Mohawk culture, if you share a story, you become a storyteller.

Last Sunday at The Wild Center, Mohawk storyteller Dave Fadden shared several stories with attendees. He began with a simple story about the importance of treating others with respect, and he used a colorful beadwork pictograph made by his grandfather to illustrate the tale.

The story went something like this:

Once there was a village deep within the forest.

One day, an old man came out of the woods. He was hungry, tired and wearing tattered clothing. The man knocked on the first door he came to, the one with the turtle clan symbol above the door, and asked for food and shelter. He was turned away.

Feeling desperate, the man continued to the next house, and then he continued on to every house in the village, but no one would let him in.

When the man finally reached the last house, he was more tired and hungry than ever, but he hadn’t given up hope. He knocked on the door beneath the bear clan symbol, and the woman who answered welcomed him inside. She called him grandfather, fed him, made him new clothes and told him to stay. She told the man that he honored her by being her guest, and he soon became an adopted member of the family.

One day the man became ill, and he told the woman to go into the woods and retrieve a plant. She followed his instructions on where to find the plant and when she returned, the old man taught her how to use it to make medicine.

The man became sick again and again, and each time he told her to retrieve a different plant and taught her how to make medicine from it, until he had been stricken by every ailment known to people at that time.

One day the old man died and a bright light appeared. It frightened the woman until a figure within the light explained that he was the Creator. The Creator told the woman that he had ventured forth on Earth as an old man to see if people still remembered his teachings. In return for the woman’s unabashed kindness and generosity, he taught her the ways of medicine. The Creator said from that day forward, her tribe would forever be known as the medicine tribe.

Dave became a storyteller 20 years ago. After he told the story about the old man, he pulled a sweet flag root from his pocket and explained that he chews on it to soothe his throat while he tells stories. He explained that there are still some who remember how to make many traditional Mohawk medicines, but a lot of that knowledge has been lost.

Dave’s journey of becoming a storyteller began by being a good listener. He now lives in Akwesasne, but he grew up in Onchiota, where he spent countless hours listening to his grandfather, Ray, recite stories. Ray’s tales had a profound effect on Dave, who still remembers them so well that he now passes them on to others.

“He would tell you stories that would make you laugh, and some that would make you very scared, too,” Dave recalled.

Ray’s stories weren’t just for entertainment, though. Many of them had powerful messages regarding how people should respect and care for each other and the Earth. Since the Mohawk culture doesn’t have a written language, some stories were doubly important because they recalled Mohawk history. A lot of that history was lost as native people were forcefully assimilated into European culture and beliefs.

“One way to assimilate people is to start with the children,” Dave said. “There was a program where they put our children into boarding schools to make them conform to Western society. They took away their language, their clothing and they cut their hair to make them conform to what they believed was right. They made them learn to read and write English. Those children lost their sense of pride in who they were. What my grandfather was doing was replanting that seed of pride in young Mohawk kids.”

Replanting pride in native culture was not something that was universally accepted. Ray sought to change that, to give his people a sense of who they are and where the came from.

Ray taught school on the Tuscarora Indian Reservation near Niagara Falls until he moved, after which he began teaching at the Mohawk School in Hogansburg on the Akwesasne Reservation. Since teaching Mohawk culture was forbidden, Ray would put a student in the hallway to keep watch for administrators while he told stories.

“He grew up during a time when it was really bad,” Dave said. “He took it upon himself to make a difference, to change the viewpoint most people had about Native Americans.”

Dave said the effect of people like his grandfather is more evident today than when he was younger. He said modern-day educators are beginning to teach Mohawk culture, and in the schools, Mohawk art lines the hallways and young people are beginning to learn and speak the Mohawk language again.

“You have to realize that the school systems in the United States and Canada, when it pertains to native peoples, are very limited,” Dave said. “In fact, I find it’s very lacking. When I went to school many years ago, all I remember learning is that we had corn. Our culture is actually so rich and so vast, it would take the whole high school four years just to learn a fraction of it.”

The push to reclaim Native Americans’ history and culture isn’t just about educating Mohawks. Dave said he’d like everyone to understand how his people have been a part of United States history.

“I’m excited educators today are learning more about our culture to teach non-natives,” Dave said. “There are still a lot of stereotypes that exist out in the world. Those stereotypes and that prejudice, it all stems from lack of education, from ignorance. Most people don’t have the knowledge, and most of the knowledge they do have is inaccurate. Most of the knowledge they get is from John Wayne movies, and that isn’t accurate.”

And then there are the stories. They spring from every corner of life, and in Mohawk culture there seems to be a lesson in everything. Even Mohawk names are indicative of the people they represent.

Here’s how it works: In Mohawk culture, the eldest woman on the mother’s side names all of the babies. In Dave’s family, that responsibility belonged to his great grandmother.

Dave’s Mohawk name is Kanietakeron, which means patches of snow. On the day Dave was born, his great-grandmother looked out of the window and saw patches of snow on the ground that were left over from a winter thaw. Kanietakeron was a name that fit.

Dave’s older brother’s Mohawk name is Tehonatake, which means two towns. When he was born, the family moved from Akwesasne to Onchiota. They were traveling back and forth a lot, so in a sense, he lived in two towns. Tehonatake’s name represents the first years of his life.

Dave’s younger brother’s Mohawk name is Kanetiio, a name that means beautiful pines. He was born at the Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake and named after the pines that line the shores of Lake Colby across the street.

Dave explained that women have a prominent role in Mohawk society. They are the only ones who can nominate a chief, who is a man. Since the women always put the men into power, they can also take that power away if the man does something that negatively affects his family or his nation.

“In Mohawk culture, women have always had a voice,” Fadden said. “Women didn’t have a voice here until 1924. Our people were so free. Individual freedom, even now we’re not free in society. Our people were absolutely free, and that’s what the European settlers were seeking. We were here, and we had an influence. Once you have that acknowledgment and respect you can begin to work together and get along. We want to be more than a footnote in history books.”

Fadden helps run the Six Nations Indian Museum in Onchiota. It was founded by Ray, Christine and John Fadden in the summer of 1954.

The museum contains more than 3,000 artifacts from the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy: Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora. There is also an art gallery on site that includes some of Dave’s paintings. His work is also on display in the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. and New York City.

The Six Nations Indian Museum is open July and August, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. It is also open by appointment to groups in June and September.

For more information, call 518-891-2299 or visit