MOHAWK ELDER BIOGRAPHY
My English name is Tom Porter. My Mohawk name, Sagogweniongwass, was given by my grandmother. I think I was given that even before I was born - and it means, “The One Who Wins.” I belong to the Bear Clan. My father, I think, belonged to the Turtle Clan.
I was privileged to be born at a time when our reservation of Akwesasne and St. Regis had no electricity, when there was not a single telephone pole or electric line anywhere in our territories.
We used kerosene lamps, and everybody had wood stoves and big gardens, and everybody was pretty self-sufficient. They had cows, pigs, horses, and wagons. When I was ten, it was still like that, when the first telephone poles came on our land. So I can remember a lot of it. And I was born at a time when there were still older women and men who really believed like Sitting Bull, like Crazy Horse, like our great old Indian leaders. There’s still some here and there, but as far as any quantity of them, I think that was the last batch.
My desire and my work is to revitalize our tradition, our truth, because I was good friends with the old leaders and chiefs and clan mothers. And a lot of them were my relatives, the ones that followed the tradition. I was often the interpreter for them, when they needed somebody to translate from Mohawk into English. I did that for many years. And a lot of it went in my head and stayed there, and became a reservoir of knowledge. I didn’t go to school for it; it just happened by accident, from interpreting.
Back when I was six, the Hopi Elders came to our longhouse, which is the centre of our traditional life and spiritual practices. And these Hopis talked in their language through an interpreter, and then through another interpreter from English back to Mohawk. So there was quite a bit of interpreting going on. I was only six years old, but I was almost as tall as those Hopis were, and they were grown men. They don’t get too big, the Hopi.
And they’re the ones that came to see if we were still following our tradition and ceremonies, to remind us. When I was six, I knew there was a lot of Indians all over the country, but I thought that they were all like Mohawks, because we never traveled far. I knew Onondagas - that they were Onondagas and we were Mohawks - but we can still understand them, even though their language is a little different. So when these Hopis came to the Longhouse, they looked and talked different. That’s the first I knew that there wasn’t just Mohawk Indians.
Then later I traveled, and I began to know the other Indians. When I was young, I was asked to go to Oklahoma with our traditional Chiefs’ Council as their interpreter, somewhere around 1967. And at this meeting, the Cherokees were there, and the Cheyennes, Lakota, Shoshones, Paiutes, Senecas, Ojibwes… all the Indians.
And those Hopis came in by pickup truck. And the old man that came there with them, he might have been a hundred and-ten years old, riding in the back of a pickup truck all the way to Oklahoma. And he talked there, and he cried there too. And he said, “It looks like we’re the last generation now to follow our nation’s spiritual ways, to maintain our religious places: our Hopi Kivas, the Mohawk Longhouses, the Sun Dance arbors in South Dakota - because all our young ones seem to be going the American or Canadian way, following Christianity or some other kind of religion.” He said, “Those missionaries have got lots of money. And they use that money to send people all over the world. They’re always working on converting people, and they get paid to do it too.”
“But us Lakotas and Hopis and Seminoles and Mohawks, we hardly have money to buy bread. So we can’t send people around to counter the conversions. That’s why they’re winning. We’ve got hardly any chance.” So he said, “I don’t know what the young people are going to do.” And he started crying. “Looks like we’re the last; they’re just steamrolling over us.” And so he posed a question to us, that old man, who was a hundred and some years old; he says, “It’s up to you; have you got enough power to continue or not?” So we came home and said, “Well, are we going to get steamrolled over, or are we going to try and do something about it?”
So we organized, and we called it the White Roots of Peace. We traveled all over the country. We got singers and dancers, and sometimes there was a dozen of us traveling in a mobile home we purchased from a doctor in Vermont. We traveled, and interpreted: what’s the ceremony mean? The spiritual traditions, our teachers, our elders, our clan mothers, our chiefs, our nations, our whole constitution - what do they mean? What do they mean, our ceremonies for the dead? The real Haudenosaunee speak a certain way at funerals and ceremonies. And it’s not the European way.
So we went to universities where Indians were going, and urban centres like Chicago, Santa Fe, Florida. And we went to the big reservations, to the Lakotas in Montana, the Cheyennes, the Crow. We even cooked in the soup kitchens in Toronto - all over. And we put on the dances, and interpreted: What does it mean? Are you going to quit? We’re not. We’re not going to let that man, when he dies, take all the ceremonies with him, and us not have anything left. We’re studying that. We believe that, because we think that when God made us as Indians, he had a purpose. He didn’t do it for nothing. And so if we become proud Indians, then God will become proud of us, too.
And you know, after that a lot of Indians reconsidered it. All over the country, we planted the seed. And they watered it in different communities. And there was a revitalization nationwide, internationally. That’s what we did about it. Sometimes we ran out of money, so we’d call back home, and our Longhouse women would make all kinds of cupcakes and pies, and have a pie bingo. And after a while, they’d send us 200 dollars to get some more gas. It was a grassroots movement. We didn’t get grants from anybody, just our own grandmothers and uncles and aunts in the community. It was the real pure days of struggle. That’s why we didn’t mind when we would run out of gas or something, and have a hard time. That was part of it, and we kept going.