The flare-up was predictable. Most tellingly it sprung up at Akwesasne, Mohawk land, where the beacon light of Indian consciousness has flashed before.
The board of education that oversees the 65-percent-Mohawk Salmon River High School banned from its total school system an established morning ritual: the recitation of the Haudenosaunee (Mohawk) Thanksgiving Address, or ''the words that come before all else.'' This blow to Mohawk pride and identity caused quite a stir in the Akwesasne community, bringing to the fore important questions of Native cultural existence in North America.
For local reporters, a sense of wonderment is expressed that a controversy for once has arisen between Mohawks and a segment of the local white establishment not involving gaming, land claims or contraband. This time the issue is over a deeply-felt and these days more often-heard traditional oration, one that is best given in the ancient language which, at Akwesasne, many people - particularly older adults - speak and understand.
As in all things Mohawk, the expression of the sovereign Indian culture is at the forefront. Salmon River High School, for instance, flies three flags at the same height: Mohawk, American and Canadian. The Mohawks have fought hard to establish respect for their tribal sovereignty and cultural heritage.
Established as a Jesuit-controlled village, Akwesasne (St. Regis Parish), Catholicism on the Mohawk reservation was particularly harsh against practitioners in the longhouse traditional ceremonies. Yet the ancient practices survived; and as the younger generations graduated from college while elders still conducted ceremonies, community consciousness about the ancient culture forced the teaching of language, history and other Native studies topics in the local curriculum.
On the same reservation, the Akwesasne Freedom School conducts a successful Mohawk language immersion curriculum. The Thanksgiving Address, as recited in Mohawk, is a centerpiece of the introduction and study of the language there.
Conducted for more than three years, the community and students had come to expect the recitation each Monday morning. As the message of the Thanksgiving Address is completely positive and humanistic while ''addressing'' higher beings, the Mohawks were proud to share it with students from the local non-Indian families, and the hard-won right to be represented and understood in the public sphere was enhanced.
The decision to deny the recitation of the address hit many Mohawks as needless hostility. A school board member had complained that the address, which mentions and gives thanks to a ''Creator,'' violated the separation of church and state. The board quickly banned the recitation out of hand.
Several hundred Mohawk students conducted rallies and civil protest against the decision while the board denied any redress. Five sixth-graders were suspended. Things got a bit hot. Mohawk families sued, arguing that a reference to a ''Creator'' does not define the address as a prayer. This hard-to-make argument reflects the fervor of the moment in the continuous search for respect as tribal cultures.
Various definitions of prayer have, of course, arisen. The school board itself opted to consult Webster's Dictionary, while Mohawk commentators wonder why they did not consult the elder culture specialists in their community. ''There is no word for 'prayer' in our traditional language,'' one parent told National Public Radio.
A clarifying argument focused on the Pledge of Allegiance, with its unambiguous reference to a country ''under God.'' What makes the Pledge of Allegiance so sacrosanct, when a Mohawk cultural expression cannot be held to be less unifying or humanistic? The pledge, community activists pointed out, started out without referring to a ''God,'' and was proclaimed in 1892 to celebrate the Columbus 400th Anniversary bash of the time. Only in 1954 were the words ''under God'' added in.
This interesting history is enough to lighten the discussion, except the Mohawks are serious about their culture and its representation in education: and the Thanksgiving Address is as central to the ancient culture as anything one can find. Mohawk Chief James Ransom credits the strength of traditional culture with his community's high rating for college-level students.
While Ransom approached the matter with diplomacy, an Albany reporter cut to the chase. ''It's essentially about two different world views - the Mohawk's spirituality and the culture of white, Christian America ... [and] ... the affair has brought to the surface what Mohawks say are centuries-old efforts by a dominant European society to obliterate the American Indians' way of thinking.'' (''A test of Mohawk spirituality, God, law: Tribal members contest school ban on traditional ritual, seek to halt Pledge of Allegiance'' by Rick Karlin, Albany Times-Union, Sept. 25.)
Some compromises are being heard now. The Salmon River schools have offered a more private space for Mohawks and others. The legal matter persists. It is an interesting case and reflects the Mohawk proclivity for focusing issues that will widen across society.
As the Bush administration gleefully pushes the challenge to science from creation-based sources, the assumption is that this reflects only the biblical creation. Well, other peoples, among them traditional Native practitioners and believers, have creation stories too. The variety of creation and thanksgiving ceremonial traditions among Native peoples can no doubt represent the widest imaginable rainbow of possibilities, if the challenge is there to explain the spiritual nature of the universe according to our own cultural traditions.
If the Pledge of Allegiance, complete with its reference to the Christian deity, must be allowed in America's schools, so too must the ancient Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address be allowed its reference to the longhouse deity. Consistency of application of constitutional principles and interpretations regarding the separation of church and state would suggest, it seems obvious to us, either they both stay in or are both cast out of the classroom.
Nobody denigrates here the Pledge of Allegiance - the recent 100-year-old statement of commitment means a great deal to many people - but there is nothing like the strength of a truly ancient expression of human connection to the natural world as represented by this central Haudenosaunee oration. The Thanksgiving Address, fixing the mind of the human being in the context of the wondrous forces of nature that surround us and sustain us, is at once mystical and deeply truthful. Beyond this particular controversy, we submit, it deserves deep and abiding contemplation.
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